Monday, May 7, 2012


Procrastination at its finest

Like most people I like to procrastinate. Especially in the run up to college deadlines. I clean my room. I organise and re-organise my notes. I purchase stationery. I spend extended amounts of time on Facebook. But when I was in final year of college, way back in 2007, my online procrastination method of choice was

For those of you who have not encountered TED before I apologise in advance for the hours you are about to lose to this website. You will be less productive in work or college, you will spend less time going out, you will neglect relationships. But it will be worth it for the hours of inspiration and ingenuity you will encounter.

A brief history of TED

TED stands for Technology Entertainment Design. The conference initially started back in 1984 as a forum for people involved in those three industries to come together to share ideas and new technologies. The format of the conference was that individual speakers would talk for 15 – 18 minutes on an idea, innovation or new way of looking at the world that they were passionate about. However in time the topics of the conference became far broader. Nowadays speakers at the TED conferences address issues of economics, international development, art, education, particle physics, the environment, marine biology, conservation

Then in 2006 someone in TED had the bright idea of putting up some of the videos of the talks online, for free. Talks began to be shared among friends and colleagues over email and emerging social media networks. People shared videos because the speakers are well-informed, engaging, funny, touching, inspiring….Talks were shared hundreds and thousands of times over, people left comments on the website and debated each other. The power of TED became the discussions the videos generated, whether these discussions were on- or offline. Their motto became ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’. Currently on there are over 900 videos, so you can see how I can easily wile away the hours on the site!

The simplicity of the format meant that it began to be replicated and in order to manage that TED came up with TEDx. They allowed people all over the world organise their own TED like events. It could use the TEDx branding as long as it conformed to some basic criteria and TED provides these independent organisers with resources and other forms of support so that these talks can be of as high a quality as possible.

TED and Andrea

Now I harbour distant dreams of attending the TED conference someday, and maybe even speaking at it (it’s good to dream big, right?) but until then I have contented myself with attending TEDx events in Dublin and London. And I had been planning to attend the next TEDx event in Nairobi when TED@Nairobi came along.

When Laura B emailed me to see if I wanted to attend a TED talk last weekend I jumped at the chance, what a lovely way to spend a Saturday evening. And so I rocked up to Braeburn school with Amy and Laura I still thought I was going to a TEDx event. It was only when the 2 hosts introduced themselves that I realised that we were attending some even more special than that.

TED @Nairobi
The two hosts for the night were Chris Anderson and Kelly Stoetzel of TED. Real TED! In California. They are the Curator (i.e. dude in charge) and Director of TED Content respectively.They explained that the theme for the February 2013 TED conference is ‘The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered’ so they are going around to find the ‘undiscovered’ new ideas that existed in all different corners of the world. The aim was to visit 14 cities across 6 continents, the talks would be filmed and uploaded onto and some of the most interesting, engaging and popular speakers would find themselves with slots at TED 2013 in California.

Chris and Kelly of TED introduce the evening
TED@Nairobi has 25 different acts/performances each lasting 6 minutes. Halfway through the evening we were given a 40 minute break to stretch our legs, refuel (they provided lots of food and tea and coffee) and to make new friends amongst our fellow audience members. The audience at the event were a real mix. I’d say the audience was 40% Kenyan and about 60% mzungu/foreign folks. And very very trendy. The audience was super cool, I did not realise Nairobi had quite so many hipsters!

Cameras rolling

Highlights of TED@Nairobi

Like a mother asked to pick favourites amongst her children I can’t say I had a favourite. Who am I kidding of course I can! Well out of 26 it was always going to be difficult to choose just one so here are my top 5 (in no particular order).

Julie Wangombe
Julia recited her poem called ‘Call Me Africa’. Now, I’ve never been a major fan of spoken word poetry but this girl was excellent, really and truly. She carried herself way, spoke so articulately and clearly (something I look for after many years of speech and drama lessons) and you could tell she lived and felt every word of her poem. Her poem spoke to Africa’s vast diversity. Every stanza started with a new line ‘call me diversity’ ‘call me victory’ ‘call me I wish I could remember more of it now but my over-riding memory of the 6 minutes that she spent onstage is my nodding in agreement with her vivid and moving descriptions of this continent.

The theme of Africa’s diversity was touched on by many of the speakers actually and the idea that we need to move away from one-dimensional portraits of a continent of 56 counties and 1 billion people was reiterated by different individuals on the night. Far from being 'the dark continent' it is a continent with a rich and sophisticated history (as Saki Mafundikwa's talk on African typography illustrated).

Richard Turere
Richard's talk was heavily linked to that of another speaker, Paula Kahumbu from Her organisation spreads stories of conservation from around the world through online blogs and forums. She spoke of how the biggest threat to wild animals like lions comes from farmers trying to protect their herds.

And it was Paula's organisation who found Richard. Richard was 9 years old when he began to be responsible for a herd of cattle. And he would get very upset when lions from neighbouring Nairobi National Park would kill some of them. At the age of 11 he noticed that the lions would get scared off when they saw the flashing of his torchlight. So he came up with a system of lights that he erected around his cattle pen that would flash alternately and keep lions away (without having to shoot the lions). His neighbours quickly saw the effectiveness of his 'lion lights' system and within weeks he had installed 6 of his makeshift lion scaring devices. Now the idea is spreading across Kenya and Richard himself has been awarded a scholarship to a top secondary school in Nairobi as a result.

Su Kahumbu
(I have just noticed that she has the same surname as another speaker but I don't *think* they are related. If so that would be one deadly family). 
Su spoke about the crisis that is occurring in agriculture. While the population of the world is growing phenomenally quickly, the number of people engaged in agriculture continues to fall. For many it is not seen as a viable, or desirable, lifestyle/career choice.

The solution? To make agriculture sexy (and she doesn't mean through things like this). Su has made agriculture sexy, and more productive, through technology. Su's innovation is a mobile phone application (that doesn't require a super fancy phone) called icow. icow helps farmers to plan their activities through the 'cow calendar' which tells them when to milk their cows, when to start breeding etc. It has has a service where users can request information and the contact details of experts, such as AI men (artificial insemination for those out of the farming loop). The application can also be used to gather information, farmers can send information on herd numbers, milk yields etc to be used by government and NGOs for planning purposes. Already research into the impact of the programme has concluded that farmers using icow have seen their milk yields increase by over a third.

Dino Martins
This man managed to do the impossible. He made me a bit excited about insects. Insects, their presence and sheer variety, is one of the things I am finding hardest about living in Kenya so that is one mean feat. Dino spoke about the importance of bees in particular, and how one in three mouthfuls of food that we eat are thanks to the pollination of bees. And many varieties are dying out. So Dino showed us how to make bee hotels for our gardens. Now I won't be rushing out to build a bee hotel in our backyard any time soon but I did take on board what he said about create a little bit of space for insects in our hearts. So I will try, I promise. 

Kenyan Boys Choir
Ok, so this wasn't a typical TED inspiration talk but this has to be the most amazing choir I have ever seen perform live. And I'm not the only one who thinks so. They also performed for Barack Obama. Their performance will be going up on at the end of June but until then here's a taste of just how deadly they are, as any description I try to do will not do them justice.

Kenyan Boys Choir take to the stage

Dancing while doing 5 part harmonies - incredible!
But apart from those 5 I got a little something from every talk.

From Daya Olopade I learned that there needs to be a shift away from focusing on Africa’s formal structures when looking at development and aid. In some countries in Africa as much as 70% of the countries economic activity is not counted by formal measures such as Gross Domestic Product. In some countries formal institutions may be weak but informal ones may be strong and where international development aid can really add value is to strengthen and enhance these informal institutions.

From Doreen Baingana I learned about the power that language has when it comes to questions of ethnicity and tribalism. As a writer and performer she talked about her own struggles with censorship and self-censorship when it came to describing different groups in her work.

From Munir Virani I learned about the importance of vultures in our world and how the stereotypes about them being ugly, dirty disease spreaders are far from true (and so comparisons with politicians are very unfair!) In fact they are good for the environment and they actually prevent the spread of disease by stripping carcasses before feral dogs and other carnivores get to them. And they are being endangered by wind farms, chemical poisoning and other human interventions.

From Mary Abukutsa Onyango I learned of the massive under-consumptions of fruits and vegetables in Africa. And this is in spite of the fact indigenous African fruit and vegetables have massive competitive nutritional advantages over other fruits and vegetables. I will definitely be trying some of the foods I don't recognise on my next trip to Kangemi market!

From Dayo Ogunyemi I learned that there is a huge, and currently unfilled, appetite for cinema, especially African cinema, in Africa at the moment. In the United States there is one cinema screen for every 8,000 people. In India it is one screen per 100,000 people. In Sub-Saharan Africa there is one screen for every 6 million people! The majority of the region's residents watch their movies in place like this, on a 19 inch TV screen. The possibility of building community cinemas could have vast entertainment but also educational consequences for the continent.

From Eric Wainaina, a well-known Kenyan musician, I learned about the importance of taking risks when it comes to music, but also to life. He also had some really quirky ideas of how to make Kenya better. My favourite of which was his suggestion of changing the working hours during the rainy season to be from 6am to 2pm so that we avoid travelling home in the rain (as it nearly always starts raining around 4pm every day). This would stop the mental traffic jams, and road flooding situations that happen every day at this time of year.

And I could go on but this is turning into quite the post!

TED After-thoughts
I left the event on a complete high. I had listened to 25 passionate, interesting and committed people from all walks of life who were doing things that they believed were helping to change the world in some small way. I was so excited to write this blog (as I think is clearly evidenced by its sheer length) and share with you all some of the interesting tidbits, and small moments of inspiration that came from the night. 
And I'll be even more excited to watch the videos from this event, as well as the 13 other similar events when they go live on at the end of this month. 

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1 comment:

  1. Can totally see you giving a TED talk before you turn 40. Especially if you've put it on a to-do list!