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Zimbabwean tech startup founder interviews Barack Obama (full transcript)

takunda-chingonzo-obama

The founder wireless internet startup, Saisai, which we covered here some weeks ago, interviewed US president, Barack Obama, yesterday on stage yesterday on stage at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Takunda Chingonzo in the US on the Young African Leaders programme. Below is the full transcript of the interview.

Takunda Chingonzo: 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, where we’re essentially liberating the internet for Zimbabweans.

President Obama: This is an example of the young African leaders and infact the youngest African leader.

Chingonzo: I will start by delving into a personal experience. I was going to get into my business and how we got where we are. I’m workin on my third startup called Saisai. We’re creating ZImbabwe’s first free internet access network, hence liberating the internet. So in our working we got to a point where we needed to import a bit of technology from the United States. And so we were engaging in conversation with these US based businesses, and the response we got time and time again was that unfortunately we cannot do business with you because you are from Zimbabwe. I was shocked, “this doesn’t make sense”

And this is the same experience that other entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe have gone through. Even in the meetings that I have heard here you sit down with potential investors you talk about the project, the outlook, the opportunity, the growth and all that and they are excited. All systems are firing. 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 but unfortunately we cannot engage in business with you.”

I understand that the sanctions that we have in Zimbabwe are targeted sanctions but then we have come to a point where we as young Africans are failing to properly engage in business with US based entities because there hasn’t been that clarity as these entities believe that Zimbabwe is under sanctions. So what really can we do to try and clarify this to make sure that we as young African entrepreneurs can effectively develop Africa and engage in business.

Obama: Well, obviously, the situation in Zimbabwe is somewhat unique. The challenge for us in the United States has been how do we balance 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 will suffer.

But you’re absolutely right it also has to be balanced with making sure that whatever structure we put in place with respect to sanctions don’t end up punishing  the very people inside those countries.

My immediate suggestions and this is a broader point to all the African businesses who are here as well and the US businesses is to make sure that we’re using the department of commerce and the other US 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 enhance as opposed to retard the progress of the Zimbabwean people.

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

Chongonzo: Because the point of emphasis really is that as young Africans we want to converse with other business entities here in the US and if these sanctions are really targeted then in honest truth there aren’t supposed to hamper to business we are trying to develop.

Obama: Let’s see if we can refine them further based on some of the things that you’re talking about.

Chingonzo: That’s alright. There’s been a good number of investments that have been announced here. Multi billion dollar investments in Africa and we’re really excited because there’s been a lot of talk about how the public and private partnerships are the vehicle through which these investments will come into Africa but I want to bring a point of clarity. I believe that the private sector is stratified in itself. We have existing indigenous businesses in these countries that we are hoping to invest in this usually where the funding comes through the partnerships and all that and that is well and fine. But then underneath that we have these young and 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 and what we have seen over the past years is that, indeed this investment comes through but it never cascades down to these younger entrepreneurs and emerging businesses. And so the existing businesses then form sort of a ceiling that we cannot break through.

When it comes to investment solving unemployment, I believe that it’s more realistic to understand that the probability of 10 startups employing 10 people in a given time period is more realistic than one indigenous company employing a hundred people. So has there been consideration in these deals that have been structured and investments that you announced to cater for the young entrepreneur who is trying to innovate to solve the problems in society?

Obama: First of all I think that the business leaders who are here both African and the US, it’s hard being a startup everywhere. Part of what you are describing is typical of business around the world. Folks who are already in, 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 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 US as well. Having said that, what is absolutely true is that as we think about the billions of dollars that we are mobilising, we want to make sure that small businesses, medium sized businesses, women owned businesses, have opportunity. So my instruction to all our agencies and hope the work we’redoing with all our partners is how can we identify target financing for the startup. How can we identify and link up US companies with small and medium sized businesses and not just the large businesses and I think you are absolutely right that by us trying to spread investment, not narrowly through 1 or 2 companies, but broadly, that the opportunities of success in those countries are higher and it also creates and healthy competition.

For example our Feed the Future programme, 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 programme, she was able to mechanise and double her productivity. And 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, and doubled her productivity again. And suddenly what had started off as a programme to increase her income had become capital for a growing business and she was now hiring people in her area and doing some of the processing 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 they need is not very large. Sometimes it’s fairly modest amount so what I want to do is make sure that we constantly looking out for opportunities to disburse this capital not just narrowly but broadly. And one of things I hope happens with US companies is that they are constantly looking for opportunities to partner with young African entrepreneurs, startups, and not just going to same well established companies.

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

Chingonzo: I’m glad that you acknowledge that, and I hope that in these deals and the financing that we talk about that one of the conditions be that those large organisations that get investment have policies that cascade downwards to people at the grassroots.

You spoke about this lady who was using a smartphone to get prices. It is one key issue which is propelling business and development in Africa. The ability to leverage technology and it’s really about the internet of things and this is why I’m working on liberating the internet in Africa to get more people connected. This is a huge opportunity in Africa as well. there’s this troubling issue that has been brought to our attention with entities and organisations that have come up that have said we want to control the internet and who gets what traffic and from who. And policies like that become challenges for startups that are trying to leverage the internet, or this lady farmer that you talked about who’s trying to get information form the internet. So I wanted to understand what is your stance on net neutrality and its effects on the growth and development in Africa.

Obama: This is an issue for all heads of states and government not just in Africa but around the world. The reason the internet is so powerful is because its open. My daughters, 16 and 13, they can access information from any place 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 that, they do better in school that I do – but the world’s at their fingertips and what facilitates that and what facilitates the incredible value that has been built by companies like Google and Facebook and so many others, all the applications that you find on the smartphone, is that they are no restrictions, there are no barriers to entry to new companies that have good ideas to use this platform that is open to create value and it is very important that we maintain that.

I know that there’s a tension in some countries. The attitude is that we don’t necessarily want all this information to be flowing because it can also end u being used as a tool for political organising, it can be used as a tool to criticise the government, and maybe we prefer a system that is more close. I think that as a self defeating attitude. Over the long term, because of technology, information, knowledge, transparency is inevitable, and that’s true here in the US and 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 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, for criminal enterprises and human trafficking. But we can do that in ways that are compatible with maintaining an open internet.

This raises the broader question that I mentioned earlier, that Africa needs capital and in some cases African 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 is already there and the growth that is 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’s one example.

You gotta have a system and sets of laws that encourage entrepreneurship and 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. The countries that are going to attract that investment are the ones where an investor knows when a power plant is built, there are rules in place that are transparent that ensure that they are going to get a decent return. And that that some of the revenue isn’t siphoned off in certain ways so that the investor has political risks. Or risks in 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 in the marketplace involves knowledge and that can’t be controlled, the more successful countries are going to be.

Chingonzo: So just to clarify of the issue of net neutrality, you are advocating for an open and fair internet. Which has then structures to ensure that the platform itself isn’t abused.

Obama: Well, there are two issues. 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.

Chingonzo 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 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 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 create this economic environment that fosters for the growth and development of Africa as a continent.

Obama: Well, although this isn’t always a popular position here in Washington these days, the truth is, 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 trustworthy, 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 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 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.


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14 thoughts on “Zimbabwean tech startup founder interviews Barack Obama (full transcript)

  1. “We’re creating ZImbabwe’s first internet access network”, mmmmmm, maybe ndini hangu dofo ndavharwa nechirungu?

    1. Thanks for pointing this out Kusaziva.

      He actually said “Zimbabwe’s first free internet access network” but we’d transcribe it wrong. Our mistake and not his. Updated.

    1. Chingonzo avoided the most crucial question: He should have asked Obama: Are the targeted sanctions a way of making the poor Zimbabwean people suffer so that they revolt and bring about a diabolic ‘regime change’.

      1. Who is the lost African here, the one who steal aid money and bank it outside the country. “Making the poor suffer so that they revolt and bring about a diabolic regime change” We should be mature and a bit more analytical about how this world works, nobody but ourselves would bring development to our countries. If we implement destructive policies and do not even know our priorities then we have no one to blame but ourselves.

        1. Thank you for you comment Martin. No hard feeling hey, just freely express your opinion. It doesn’t matter whether you are lost and found.

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