Like many young students, June Arunga took time off from law school for a road trip. But it was no spring break. Working with a BBC TV film crew, she traveled 5,000 miles from Cairo to Cape Town, documenting a grueling journey that brought her from war zones, mining towns, and refugee camps to Desmond Tutu's living room. "I wanted to know, Why is Africa so poor?" says the Kenyan, from her current home in Ghana. To visit people displaced after a 30-year war over oil in Sudan, she had to hitch a ride with the relief organization Doctors Without Borders. While she visited with UN peacekeepers, she says, local rebels "threatened to slit my throat and eat my flesh." At the end of her trip, after praying with Tutu in his living room, she bluntly asked the Nobel Prize winner, "Where have Africans gone wrong?"
Arunga has since come up with her own answers. Now 27, she has made three other documentaries on Africa and has become an increasingly vocal presence at economic conferences -- pushing Ayn Rand solutions with a side of Norma Rae. "What should be encouraged is the fundamental right of people to own land and the products of their labor, which are then recognized by courts, and can be exchanged at the market." Asking for aid, she says, is part of the problem. "I doubt there is a parent that raises their child to become a beggar," she says. "Gain respect. Keep your promises."
In 2007, while researching a documentary on the telecom industry, Arunga became convinced that recent liberalization of the industry could result in new, affordable mobile services, particularly banking services, which could unleash an entrepreneurial spirit in Africa. "Here, people have leapfrogged from having no phones to widespread telephony," she says. "It's the only infrastructure we have that's world class." After watching Herman Chinery-Hesse, a software engineer known as the Bill Gates of Ghana, speak on the topic at a TED conference in Zimbabwe, Arunga decided to test her hypothesis. Undaunted by the serious competition that was clearly heading into the marketplace (the Gates Foundation has just donated $12.5 million to a mobile-banking program for the poor), she persuaded Chinery-Hesse to join forces to create a mobile-payment network for business owners. "It's not just banking we're offering," she says. "It's an entire marketplace."
The new venture, called Black Star Lines, launched in April. It took two years of hard labor; after raising angel capital in New York, Arunga became an equity partner in the business and began researching ways the startup could offer poor vendors a meaningful service affordably, without running afoul of banking regulations. Its current platform uses a scratch card and cell phone to accept money and pay bills, even to traditional bank accounts. And there is a vendor Web site where everyone from musicians and artisans to carpenters and funeral directors can advertise services. More than 500 vendors have already signed on. BSL both vets the vendors and photographs their goods as part of the service.
As Arunga ticks through her firm's still-unproven value proposition with the breathlessness of a Silicon Valley startupper, she pauses to note one poignant piece: "One of the big things our platform does is teach people how banking works, provides them with identification and record keeping, and gives them access to a global market. This is what I always wanted out of Africa -- for us to solve our problems, to put our talents to good use and compete. This is the Africa for me." -- by Ellen McGirt