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Zimbabwean's 26 Minutes of Brilliance With Obama

  • VOA Staff

Takundwa tells Obama 'We’re creating Zimbabwe’s first free Internet-access network, hence liberating the Internet'.

Takundwa tells Obama 'We’re creating Zimbabwe’s first free Internet-access network, hence liberating the Internet'.

..... And I’ve got the opportunity to speak to this young man. (Applause.)

Q So thank you very much, Mr. President for this opportunity. I’ll start you wishing you a belated Happy Birthday.


Q Thank you very much. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Have you introduced yourself to everybody?

Q I wanted to really jump into the issues. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, go ahead and introduce yourself.

Q All right. I’m Takunda Chingonzo. I’m a young entrepreneur. I’m 21. I’m from Zimbabwe. And I’m working in the wireless technology space. We’re essentially liberating the Internet for Zimbabweans. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: And let me just -- this is an example of our young African leaders; in fact, the youngest young African leader. But one thing I will say, though, if you’re going to promote your business, you’ve got to make sure to let people know who you are. (Laughter.)

Q Definitely, definitely.

THE PRESIDENT: Just a little tip.

Q Definitely.

THE PRESIDENT: You can’t be shy, man. (Laughter.) Please, go ahead.

Q That’s correct, Mr. President. So I was really going to start by delving into a personal experience. I was going to get to my business and how I got to where we are.

So as I was saying, we’re working in the technology space. I’m working on my third startup -- it’s called Saisai. We’re creating Zimbabwe’s first free Internet-access network, hence liberating the Internet. So in our working, we came to a point in time where we needed to import a bit of technology from the United States, and so we were engaging in conversation with these U.S.-based businesses. And the response that we got time and time again was that unfortunately we cannot do business with you because you are from Zimbabwe. And I was shocked -- this doesn’t make sense.

And so this is the exact same experience that other entrepreneurs that are in Zimbabwe have gone through, even through the meetings that I’ve had here. You know, you sit down with potential investors, you talk about the project, the outlook, the opportunity, the growth and all that -- and they’re excited, you can see. All systems are firing, right? And then I say I’m from Zimbabwe and they look at me and they say, young man, this is a good project, very good, very good, but unfortunately we cannot engage in business with you.

And I understand that the sanctions that we have -- that are imposed on entities in Zimbabwe, these are targeted sanctions, right? But then we have come to a point in time where we as young Africans are failing to properly engage in business with U.S.-based entities because there hasn’t been that clarity. These entities believe that Zimbabwe is under sanctions. So what really can we do to do try and clarify this to make sure that we as the young entrepreneurs can effectively develop Africa and engage in business?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, obviously, the situation in Zimbabwe is somewhat unique. The challenge for us in the United States has been how do we balance our desire to help the people of Zimbabwe with what has, frankly, been a repeated violation of basic democratic practices and human rights inside of Zimbabwe.

And we think it is very important to send clear signals about how we expect elections to be conducted, governments to be conducted -- because if we don’t, then all too often, with impunity, the people of those countries can suffer. But you’re absolutely right that it also has to be balanced with making sure that whatever structures that we put in place with respect to sanctions don’t end up punishing the very people inside those countries.

My immediate suggestion -- and this is a broader point to all the African businesses who are here, as well as the U.S. businesses -- is to make sure that we’re using the Department of Commerce and the other U.S. agencies where we can gather groups of entrepreneurs and find out exactly what can be done, what can’t be done, what resources are available. It may be that you and a group of entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe are able to meet with us and propose certain projects that allow us to say this is something that will advance as opposed to retard the progress for the Zimbabwean people.

So what I’d suggest would be that we set up a meeting and we find out what kinds of things that the young entrepreneurs of Zimbabwe want to do, and see if there are ways that we can work with you consistent with the strong message that we send about good governance in Zimbabwe.

Q I see. Because really -- the point of emphasis really is that as young Africans we want to converse with other business entities here in the U.S., and if these sanctions are really targeted, then in honest truth, they aren’t supposed to hamper the business that we’re trying to engage in, the development that we’re talking about.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, let’s see if we can refine them further based on some of the things you’re talking about.

Q That’s all right. Now, there have been a good number of investments that have been announced here -- multibillion-dollar investments in Africa -- and we’re really excited. And there’s been a lot of talk about how the public and private partnerships are the vehicle through which this investment will come into Africa, but I really want to bring it to a point of clarity. I believe that the private sector is stratified in itself. We have the existing indigenous businesses in these countries that you’re hoping to invest in, and this is where usually the funding comes through -- the partnerships and all that. That is well and fine.

But then, underneath that, we have these young, upcoming entrepreneurs -- the innovators, those that come up with products and services that disrupt the industry. And this is the innovation that we want in Africa, to build products by Africans for Africans. But in most cases, in what we have seen over the past years, is that, indeed, this investment comes through but it never cascades down to these young entrepreneurs, the emerging businesses. And so the existing businesses then form a sort of ceiling which we cannot break through.

When it comes to investment, when you’re talking about solving unemployment, I believe that it’s more realistic to assume and understand that the probability of 10 startups employing 10 people in a given time period, it’s more realistic than one indigenous company employing 100 people.

So what really has been -- or rather, has there been any consideration in these deals that have been structured in the investments that you announced to cater for the young entrepreneur who is trying to innovate to solve the problems in society?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I think for the business leaders who are here, both African and U.S., it’s hard being a startup everywhere.

Q That’s true.

THE PRESIDENT: Part of what you’re describing is typical of business around the world: Folks who are already in, they don’t necessarily want to share. They don’t want to be disrupted. If there’s a good opportunity, they’d rather do it themselves. If they see a small up-and-coming hotshot who might disrupt their business, they may initially try to block you or they may try to buy you out. And getting financing for a startup is always going to be difficult. You hear that from entrepreneurs here in the U.S. as well.

Having said that, what is absolutely true is that as we think about the billions of dollars that we’re mobilizing, we want to make sure that small businesses, medium-size businesses, women-owned businesses -- that they have opportunity. And so my instructions to all of our agencies and hopefully the work that we're doing with all of our partners is how can we identify, target financing for the startup; how can we identify and link up U.S. companies with small and medium-size businesses and not just the large businesses? And I think you are absolutely right that by us trying to spread investment, not narrowly through one or two companies but more broadly, that the opportunities for success in those countries are higher, and it also creates a healthy competition.

And that's true also in terms of how we're designing – for example, our Feed the Future program, which is working with almost 2 million small farmers inside of Africa. When I was in Senegal, I met with a woman, maybe in her 30s; she had a small plot of land initially. Through the Feed the Future program, she had been able to mechanize, double her productivity. By doubling her productivity and, through a smartphone, getting better prices to the market, she was able to increase her profits. Then she bought a tractor. Then she doubled her productivity again. And suddenly what had started off as just a program to increase her income had become capital for a growing business where she was now hiring people in her area and doing some of the process of the grain that she grew herself, so that she could move up the value chain.

There are entrepreneurs like that all across Africa. Sometimes the capital they need is not very large. Sometimes it's a fairly modest amount. And so what I want to do is to make sure that we are constantly looking out for opportunities to disburse this capital not just narrowly, but broadly. And one of the things that I hope happens with U.S. companies is that they’re constantly looking for opportunities to partner with young entrepreneurs, startups, and not just always going to the same well-established businesses.

Now, there are going to be some large-capital projects where you’ve got a good, solid, established company. Hopefully they, themselves, have policies with respect to their suppliers that allow them to start encouraging and growing small businesses as well.

Q Exactly. And on that note, I'm glad that you acknowledged that and I hope that even in these deals, in the investments that you're talking about, that one of the conditions be that those large organizations that are getting investment have policies that cascade down to people at the grassroots.

You spoke about this lady who was using a smartphone to -- it is one key issue that is really propelling business and development in Africa, the ability to leverage technology. And really it is all about the Internet of things. And that is why I'm personally working in liberating the Internet to get more people connected.

Now, this is a huge opportunity in Africa as well. Now, there is this troubling issue that has been brought to our attention with entities and organizations that have come up and have said we want to control the Internet, we want to see who gets what traffic and from whom. And policies and activities like that become challenges for startups that are trying to leverage the Internet, for this lady farmer that you talked about who is trying to leverage and get information from the Internet.

So I want to understand what is your stance on net neutrality and its effects on the global development in Africa?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, this is an important issue for all the heads of state and government not just in Africa but around the world. The reason the Internet is so powerful is because it's open. My daughters, 16 and 13, they can access information from anyplace in the world. They can learn about a particular discipline instantaneously, in ways that when I was their age -- first of all, I wasn’t as motivated as they are. I was lazier than them. (Laughter.) They do much better in school than I did. But the world is at their fingertips.

And what facilitates that, and what has facilitated the incredible value that's been built by companies like Google and Facebook and so many others, all the applications that you find on your smartphone, is that there are not restrictions, there are not barriers to entry for new companies who have a good idea to use this platform that is open to create value. And it is very important I think that we maintain that.

Now, I know that there’s a tension in some countries -- their attitude is we don't necessarily want all this information flowing because it can end up also being used as a tool for political organizing, it can be used as a tool to criticize the government, and so maybe we’d prefer a system that is more closed. I think that is a self-defeating attitude. Over the long term, because of technology, information, knowledge, transparency is inevitable. And that's true here in the United States; it's true everywhere.

And so what we should be doing is trying to maintain an open Internet, trying to keep a process whereby any talented person who has an idea can suddenly use the Internet to disperse information. There are going to be occasional tensions involved in terms of us monitoring the use of the Internet for terrorist networks or criminal enterprises or human trafficking. But we can do that in ways that are compatible with maintaining an open Internet.

And this raises the broader question that I mentioned earlier, which is Africa needs capital; in some cases, Africa needs technical assistance; Africa certainly needs access to markets. But perhaps the biggest thing that Africa is going to need to unleash even more the potential that's already there and the growth that's already taking place is laws and regulations and structures that empower individuals and are not simply designed to control or empower those at the very top.

And the Internet is one example. You’ve got to have a system and sets of laws that encourage entrepreneurship, but that's also true when it comes to a whole host of issues. It's true when it comes to how hard is it to get a business permit when a new startup like yours wants to establish itself.

When it comes to Power Africa, there are billions of dollars floating around the world that are interested in investing in power generation in Africa. And the countries that are going to attract that investment are the ones where the investor knows that if a power plant is built, that there are rules in place that are transparent that ensure that they’re going to get a decent return, and that some of the revenue isn't siphoned off in certain ways so that the investor has political risks or risks with respect to corruption.

The more that governments set up the right rules, understanding that in the 21st century the power that drives growth and development and the marketplace involves knowledge and that can't be controlled, the more successful countries are going to be.

Q I see. So just to clarify on the issue of net neutrality, you are advocating for an open and fair Internet --


Q -- which would -- then it has structure to ensure that the platform itself isn't abused.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, there are two issues -- net neutrality -- in the United States, one of the issues around net neutrality is whether you are creating different rates or charges for different content providers. That's the big controversy here. You have big, wealthy media companies who might be willing to pay more but then also charge more for more spectrum, more bandwidth on the Internet so they can stream movies faster or what have you.

And I personally -- the position of my administration, as well as I think a lot of companies here is you don’t want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the Internet is to various users. You want to leave it open so that the next Google or the next Facebook can succeed.

There’s another problem, though -- there are other countries -- and I think this is what you were alluding to -- that feel comfortable with the idea of controlling and censoring Internet content in their home countries, and setting up rules and laws about what can or cannot be on the Internet. And I think that that not only is going to inhibit entrepreneurs who are creating value on the Internet; I think it’s also going to inhibit the growth of the country generally, because closed societies that are not open to new ideas, eventually they fall behind. Eventually, they miss out on the future because they’re so locked into trying to maintain the past.

Q I see. Thank you for the clarity. I think we’re out of a bit of time. I’ll ask my final question. When we began this conversation, we were alluding to the fact that -- the need to separate the political function and economic function. In other words, politics should not get in the way of business. And I’ve gone to quite a good number of -- I know it’s difficult -- so I’ve gone to a good number of conferences where the end deliverable of the entire summit, or whatever it is, is that we need to lobby government to create policies that are conducive, and this and that. And that’s usually what you get -- either you’re trying to lobby somebody to do something, right? And, in turn, governments come up and say, yes, we promise to come up with this and that, and this and that. And that’s a whole political sphere of things. My question is, apart from that, what can we as business leaders, as the private sector, what can we do sort of independently to -- what can we do to create this economic environment that fosters for the growth and development of Africa as a continent?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, although this isn’t always a popular position here in Washington these days, the truth is, is that government really can help set the conditions and the framework for markets to function effectively -- in part because governments are able to initiate projects like roads and bridges and airports that any individual business would find cost prohibitive. It wouldn’t make sense to invest in what is a collective good; it’s not going to help your bottom line if everybody else is using it. So that’s part of the function of government.

Part of the function of government is to educate a population so that you got a well-trained workforce. It’s hard for companies to invest in doing that by themselves. There are certain common goods, like maintaining clean air and clean water, and making sure that if you have capital markets, that they’re well-regulated so that they’re trust-worthy, and small investors and large investors know that if they invest in a stock that they’re not being cheated.

So there are a whole host of functions that government has to play. But in the end, what drives innovation typically is not what happens in government, it’s what’s happening in companies. And what we found in the United States is, is that companies, once they’ve got the basic rules and they’ve got the basic platform, they are able to create value and innovation and cultures that encourage growth. And I think that African entrepreneurs are going to be the trendsetters for determining how societies think about themselves and, ultimately, how governments think about these issues.

The truth of the matter is, is that if you have big, successful companies or you’ve got widespread entrepreneurship, and you have a growing middle class and practices have been established in terms of fair dealing, and treating your workers properly, and extending opportunity to smaller contractors, and promoting women and making sure women are paid like men -- suddenly, what happens is businesses create new norms and new sensibilities. And governments oftentimes will respond.

And so I think in Africa what I’d like to see more and more of is partnerships between American businesses, between African businesses. Some of the incredible cultures of some of our U.S. businesses that do a really good job promoting people and maintaining a meritocracy, and treating women equally, and treating people of different races and faiths and sexual orientations fairly and equally, and making sure that there are typical norms of how you deal with people in contracts and respect legal constraints -- all those things I think can then take root in a country like Zimbabwe or any other country. Hopefully, governments are encouraging that, not inhibiting that. They recognize that that’s how the world as a whole is increasingly moving in that direction. And over time, you will see an Africa that is driven by individual entrepreneurs and private organizations, and governments will be responsive to their demands.

So I think the one thing I want to make sure people understand, though, is it’s not an either/or issue. Government has a critical role to play. The marketplace has a critical role to play. Nonprofit organizations have a critical role to play. But the goal and the orientation constantly should be how do we empower individuals to work together. And if we are empowering young people like you all across Africa, if we’ve got a 21-year-old who has already started three businesses, we’ve got to figure out how to invest in him, how to make it easier for him to succeed. If you succeed, you’re going to then be hiring a whole bunch of people, and they, in turn, will succeed. And that’s been the recipe for growth in the 20th century and the 21st century.

And I’m confident that Africa is well on its way. America just wants to make sure that we’re helpful in that process. And I know that all the U.S. companies who are here, that’s their goal as well. We are interested in Africa, because we know that if Africa thrives and succeeds, and if you’ve got a bunch of entrepreneurs, they’re going to need supplies from us maybe, or they may supply us with outstanding products; they’re going to have a growing middle class that wants to buy iPhones or applications from us. In turn, they may provide us new services and we can be the distributor for something that’s invented in Africa, and all of us grow at the same time.

That’s our goal, and I’m confident that we can make it happen. And this summit has been a great start. So I want to thank you for doing a great job moderating. I want to thank all the leaders here not only of government, but also business for participating. There’s been great energy, great enthusiasm. I know a lot of business has gotten done. If any of you are interested in investing in this young man, let him know. (Laughter.)

All right, thank you, guys.