I HAVE SO MANY THOUGHTS.
A Brain-Dump of afrofuturism, design, entrepreneurship, and more.
[this is just a stream of consciousness]
Sometimes, I am literally overwhelmed by how much stuff is crammed into my head. Half of the reason I am constantly compelled to write is to just put these thoughts somewhere, out of my head, after which I can finally rest.
I have literally lain awake in bed simply being excited about concepts and working through them in my head, this unexpended energy finally resting into (most often) a super long Google Keep note at 2AM.
I think it’s some combination of being ADHD, mixed, young, and inquisitive. I used to tell people that the benefit of growing up mixed was being exposed to so many different cultures. But it’s more than that. I had to fight to make people see me as many things rather than reducing me to one, ethnically and culturally. That extended to all other parts of my life too. Why be just one thing, now that I know that I can be many? Why limit myself to say, ‘I can’t do that’, or believe as others do that having many interests means you will never be particularly good at any of them? There are obvious counterexamples, like Leonardo Da Vinci. Of course, sometimes you have to focus on one thing at a time (something I struggle with from the ADHD), but so many people limit even their dreams. Why?? They’re dreams after all — they are the possibilities that you set for yourself. Dreams alone won’t take you anywhere, but if you can’t dream, if you can’t even imagine all the different futures you could have, then you won’t reach any of them either.
Your dreams are yours alone. No one can judge you for them — or at the least, you don’t have to tell anyone about them. My imagination has taken me places I would have never thought I could go. And each time I’ve actually added the time and work and effort into the dream, each time I’ve actually succeeded against all odds, it’s encouraged me to reach higher, farther, to question everyone that has questioned me — why not? Why not? Why on Earth not???
So here’s a brain dump of just everything I’m Thinking About, in no logical order.
Fashion and Design
Interestingly, I realized the power of good design after interning at Bose. I sat in on meetings with the industrial design group and observed how the design of an object really influences how people react to and interact with a product.
Since then, I’ve paid more attention to design. I read a lot of New York Magazine (particularly The Strategist and The Cut) and follow a lot of brands on Instagram (which, yes, I know).
Some things I’ve noticed include:
Startup culture and e-commerce infiltrates the design space, and many other spaces you wouldn’t expect, too, like underwear, sofas, and even mattresses. The way 2-D images look on your phone screen can even influence what clothes are for sale on a particular platform.
Design is, whether you like to admit it or not, a field that is deeply subjective and influenced heavily by societal norms, trends, the whims of the masses. Design is one of few fields where you can plainly see the effects of the presence of diversity or lack thereof, because the design is very closely tied with the background of a designer. This is a rather abstract concept, but allow me to illustrate it with a few examples:
- (an oldie but a goodie) When Nike became the world’s most valuable clothing brand in 2016, topping Louis Vuitton, it credited its success to team diversity. Over half of its US employees are non-white. (Source)
- Phoebe Philo was nearly worshipped as the head designer of luxury womenswear brand Celine, and her tenure involved a collection of minimalist pieces which felt relatable to modern women. When her successor, Hedi Slimane, former designer at Saint Laurent, took over, many people felt the brand reverted to traditional fashion runway looks — and not in a good way. He was slammed for being out of touch, accused of only “designing for skinny white women”, for not standing for anything, for removing the accent over the “e” (which was a whole thing).
- I simply cannot shut up about the Ikea Overallt collection, which is out in May (you best believe I’m buying as many pieces as I can afford). It’s Ikea’s first collaboration with African designers, and they worked with Design Indaba to pick the best of the best — Laduma Ngoxolo who designs Maxhosa, Selly Raby Kane from Senegal, Kenyan design studio Studio Propolis. While I’m excited that African design is finally getting space on the global stage, it’s unfortunate that the collection will not actually be for sale on the African continent. Progress is always bittersweet, but we celebrate what we can. (Source)
This is something I don’t quite have words for, but I hope you can understand somehow. Something about representation, about who controls the narrative, about how everything influences everything else, and art is one of few windows into those intricate, tangled connections.
Afrofuturism and Entrepreneurship
Another thing I cannot shut up about, this infiltrates most of the thoughts I have.
I recently attended the MIT Africa Innovate Conference. This year’s theme was “Made in Africa”. A friend of mine was speaking and kind enough to grant me a ticket. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was phenomenal; I attended the panels on entrepreneurship and manufacturing, and the keynote talks were inspiring and thought-provoking.
IP Law isn’t boring.
The keynote talk that hit me hardest came from Ruth L Okediji. While a lot of the talks were geared at individual or localized success and processes — that’s what entrepreneurship is, isn’t it? — Professor Okediji’s talk addressed what I often feel is missing from the conversation. She spoke about a systemic, broad-reaching concept.
Intellectual Property Law.
You might read that phrase and think it is a dry or boring topic, but Professor Okediji did an excellent job of revealing how legal frameworks are incredibly important for facilitating a space for innovation. She talked about how Africa creates and innovates, but never commodifies its work, never protects it, and this leaves it vulnerable. There are only 7 IP offices on the African continent. While everyone else at the conference kept mentioning and celebrating the recent ratification of the AfCFTA (African Continental Free Trade Area), she said she read it and weeped. It looked like a treaty negotiated 50 years ago, with no information on how to protect innovation and intellectual property. This means that people will continue to extort, fail to credit, and even discredit African innovators.
In short, simple terms, this is why some guy almost got away with patenting injera, the staple food of Ethiopia. (Source) We need to stop that from continuing to happen.
A few quotes I managed to grab while listening:
“There is an inability to translate knowledge into commodities.”
“The idea of commodification [on the continent] is still not an idea that aligns with the IP systems or the government systems of the world today.”
“The problem is not that African innovation isn’t getting those copyrights, trademarks, and designs, the problem is that other people are.”
“There are only 5–6 ip filing offices in the continent. These offices cater to the Chinese, British, Germans, French —not to the Africans. No one is paying attention to that innovation landscape.”
What is “African”?
Another thing people kept bringing up at the conference that I was skeptical about: Jumia. Jumia, the “Amazon of Africa” is the first African startup to have an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange valued at 2 billion dollars. This is of course important and may forever change the way entrepreneurship on the continent is viewed.
But is Jumia really “African”? It’s faced a lot of questions about its identity. It targets African consumers, and yet, it’s a German company co-founded by two French former Mckinsey associates. Modern Africans are skeptical, nervous, wary of extortion and rightly so. They won’t give anyone foreign, such as China, the benefit of the doubt anymore, in remembrance of the all too recent past.
An infographic of Kenya's white tech startups executives sparks rage
An infographic of white executives at some of Kenya's leading tech startups has sparked rage and conflict on several…
Last fall there was a viral photo of startup founders in Nairobi, which is recognized as a major tech hub. Most of them were white.
Another keynote speaker, Thione Niang, founder of Akon Lighting Africa, said something similarly inspiring, which I paraphrased:
“Why should you be afraid to go home? These people — Chinese and Europeans, Americans — people who don’t even speak our language are going and making money there. So why should you be afraid?”
Then I went to the entrepreneurship panel and met Joe Shields — a white guy who went to Northwestern. He is the founder of EthioChicken, now the largest chicken breed distributor in Ethiopia, servicing farmers in four East African countries. It was a transformative moment, in which I realized that I really have no excuse. Even me — someone who is worried that I didn’t grow up in Ethiopia, that I don’t speak the language well enough, that I could somehow fail because of my background — had more of a connection to Ethiopia than this guy. I want to be clear, there’s no shade or anger here — I have the utmost respect for him; he’s doing great things. But the simple realization that he still succeeded in spite of who he is and where he comes from — that will probably stick with me for the rest of my life.
Random Other Stuff
Forget about artificial intelligence, extended intelligence is the future
Last year, I participated in a discussion of The Human Use of Human Beings, Norbert Weiner's groundbreaking book on…
This is something that’s actually aligned with my “day job” as a roboticist — I really hate the “effective altruism”, AI-is-going-to-take-over-the-world-and-that’s-our-number-one-problem types, especially because they are educated techbros who should know better. It is bizarre to me that they can even get that far with that line of thinking. Fortunately, voice of reason and Media Lab Director Joi Ito puts them in their place with the above article.
On the subject of dreaming, I’ve been thinking a lot about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, her Green New Deal plan, and the video she made. It enables you to actually dream a little bit about a possible future where humans save the planet. After writing this post about cyclone idai and other climate issues, I was pretty pessimistic/nihilistic about it, but this allowed me to imagine something different.
I’m just going to end on this note because I’m forever trying to get more people to listen to Afrobeats.
✌ ✌️️ ✌️ hopefully you enjoyed this little trip inside my head. I’m going to finally be productive today now that I’ve let this all out.