‘Energy’ toilets meet ideas worth spreading at TED Nairobi

Friday May 11 2012



By common consent the star of the first [email protected] was Richard Turere, a young Maasai who was concerned about the damage lions were doing to his cattle. He wracked his brains until he came up with a solution. He knew that lions hate moving lights so he set up a system of flashing lights that he fixed to the perimeter of the manyatta. He hadn’t even been to school let alone an electronics college. He was in fact only about 10 years old when he dreamed up the idea. Now he has come up with a solution that can help others too and got himself a scholarship to Brookhouse School into the bargain.

TED began as a conference in 1984 in the USA and has become hugely successful; apart from the annual conferences in the US and Edinburgh, Scotland, talks given by the greatest speakers around the world at the TED conferences are available for free on ted.com. “Ideas worth spreading” is the motto, and the beauty of the talks is that they are all approximately 18 minutes long and intended for the curious layman.

If you happen to want to know something about neuroscience, Darwin or string theory, you will find it there.

Always experimenting to find new ways to identify and spread new thinking, TED organisers learned that TED’s best moments often come from unexpected places. That’s why this year TED launched a 14-city tour – that includes Nairobi – to find even more of those undiscovered voices, and even speakers for TED2013, “The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered.”

The talks recorded on Saturday, May 5 at the Braeburn School will be available on ted.com in June for a worldwide audience. So those complaints about Africa being marginalised and only having one story — war famine, disaster — are beginning to fall on receptive ears.

Of course, the greatest ideas — like the greatest art — are the simplest. Mary Onyango has been working on reintroducing indigenous plants into the diets of Africans who are being sucked into the McFood Machine and are therefore developing chronic lifestyle diseases like diabetes and obesity.

“Let food be our medicine,” she says, and “medicine be our food.” Mary showed the audience a graph of the minimal recommended amounts of fruit and vegetables that should be consumed daily and how Kenyans were among many Africans who were falling far short. She urged us to eat the colourful fruits that are bountiful locally: “Colour in fruit is life,” she said. Many have anti-oxidants that cleanse our systems. “Why aren’t we growing them?” she asked.

Two speakers from Kibera scorned those who felt pity for them and considered them poor. Abduel Kassim was born there and never wants to live anywhere else. “Dialogue is the missing link,” he said. Together with neighbours, he has built a school that is free for the students and also established the Junior Achievers Award.

Another speaker, Josiah Omotto who heads Umande Trust, touched on a popular theme for the day: Toilets. Who can do without them? But what forward thinking people like Omotto are doing is using human waste and turning it into biofuel. Each of us produces on average 300 grammes of waste per day; Omotto’s organisation has designed a bio-digester system that produces safe cooking gas and alternative sanitation systems.

Dominic Wanjihia too had found a way to use what he calls flexi biogas. No more charcoal needed — which means safe cooking and an end to the merciless chopping down of precious trees!
Pauline Wanja, also from Kibera, is a fine young woman who has managed against all the odds to get herself a law degree and is proud to come from a place normally so maligned. She now provides services to local people and like Kassim, wouldn’t live anywhere else even if you paid her.

The variety of subjects and styles of delivery plus an ecstatic audience made five hours simply fly by; one of the most encouraging things about all these “ideas worth spreading” is that none of their inventors has been sitting around waiting for donors. They don’t have time. They all just get on with it with few or ‘no resources; so much for those politicians who routinely decry the “idle” youth. Very few of the speakers were much over forty.

Munir Virani changed our perceptions of vultures in the space of his six-minute illustrated talk. These marvellous creatures are despised, considered so greedy by nature that they are often used in cartoons to depict corrupt politicians. But like everything in the ecosystem, they play a vital part in finishing off carcasses and killing bacteria like anthrax that can otherwise get out of hand. Yet they are critically endangered. If they are poisoned, the result is an imbalance in the ecosystem that then produces far too many feral dogs and therefore rabies. Wind turbines are increasingly being used for energy but they can slice these birds in half. Virani has done vital research on them and urges all of us to spread the word to governments before it is too late.

Su Kahumbu is working on bringing mobile technology to farmers while Nnaemeka Ikegwonu emphasises the role that radio can play in educating them.

Etymologist Dino Martins reminded us of how much we depend on honeybees, of which there are 20,000 species in the world. Plants and flowers require the pollination of bees yet they too are threatened with extinction.

Paula Kahumbu alerted us to the dangers of Furadan, which is not only responsible for killing lions but fish and birds too. Together with her organisation Wildlife Direct, she was able to inform governments of the evils of this pesticide and to create a community of people who work to influence Kenyan policies.

Not every presentation was practical; Sitawale Namwalie, whose show “Cut Off My Tongue” has been seen around the world, gave us a brief excerpt that highlights the issue of tribe in a humorous way. It was devised as a response to the post-election violence of 2008. Her approach is ironic, and so audiences don’t feel they are being lectured at. And it’s a moveable feast. “It changes every time we do it,” she says. The composition of the cast itself makes a statement: three women — two African, one white — and a male drummer.

Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana pleaded with us to create spaces where things like ethnicity could be addressed in a more meaningful manner.

The Kenya Boys Choir who performed for Barack Obama’s inauguration did us proud. The movements and costumes complement their exquisite a cappella singing. Then Nigerian-born Dayo Ogunyemi told of how he has invented a sustainable ecosystem for African film-makers by transforming the humble old video shack into a comfortable attractive space lit by solar energy. So far, there are 30 pilot schemes in operation. People want to see films that reflect their own lives and problems — which is what Nollywood delivers!

Perhaps the most daring of all was the fearless Anas Aremeyawro, undercover journalist par excellence. Appearing dramatically onstage with his face obscured by a balaclava and a fringed hat, he declared that his chief purpose was to name and shame. “There is no point in doing journalism that doesn’t affect the community,” he declared.

Disguising himself in all manner of ways, he has managed to get a witch doctor put behind bars for killing albino children and produced hardcore evidence (by posing as a patient) to prove that nurses and doctors were running a drugs trade in certain hospitals.

“We need extreme remedies for extreme diseases,” he pronounced. With the support of Al Jazeera he has been investigating Chinese prostitution rings.

But no-one will forget Lorna Irungu’s radiant story of her triumph over lupus with the help of her family and what she calls her troop of “warriors.” Like all the other speakers, she has not been defeated by the deficiencies of public medical provision. She has made it her business to find out everything she could about the disease; and when she needed three different kidney transplants, she spoke of the love of her family, three of whom donated a kidney each to keep her alive and the devotion of friends who collected $20,000 to pay for the medical fees. What greater love can there be than that?

It has given her the strength and the courage to be a spokesperson not for the disease but for an attitude of triumph in the face of adversity. She is an inspiration for all those suffering from any disease. “You are not your situation,” she says. “You’re the writer and the conqueror.”

Roll on TED. This is just the beginning.