My first full day at the World Economic Forum on Africa  starts off well. I run into John Ledgard by the elevators at my hotel. John covers Africa for The Economist, and is one of handful of people that I know here. Might be the last semi-familiar face I will see till dinner time. From here on out I will need to explain what I do and why I am here to a pretty diverse audience, few of whom will have any context for "design" much less for "frog design." I better come up with a simple way to introduce myself or it will be a long day.
What is Design?
My first stop is a breakfast for the Global Growth Companies , a relatively new class of WEF companies of which Frog is one. GGC focuses on the next generation of business leaders according to the press release. While the traditional partners of the WEF are $5+ billion companies from North America and Western Europe, more than 2/3 of GGC companies are from emerging and developing markets (with the highest growth potential). The event is smaller than I expected, only about 30 people. But I am seated next to a finance minister who seems pretty progressive. He takes out a red moleskin notebook with the Woodstock logo on it. Perhaps there is hope for me yet.
Technology and infrastructure are the main themes throughout the discussion this morning. Even here technology and entrepreneurship are practically synonymous. Many of the business leaders at my table work in ICT (which stands for "information and communication technologies," a term I am rapidly getting used to as it means the conversation has turned toward something relevant, as opposed to "mineral rights" or "ag processing"). But design is nowhere. Not on the agenda. Then a tech entrepreneur on my left pulls out an iPad. Hallelujah! Apple, the universal symbol of design has arrived. Four weeks after launch and the iPad already represents status here in Dar es Salaam. Everyone at the table wants a look. And people have a nice reference point for what I do.
Hot House Plants
The session is kicked off with general remarks about the state of the African economy. Much pride is taken in the "resilience" of the African economies in contrast to Western economies which he describes as thriving in a rarefied environment like "hot house plants." The economic crisis of 2008 was a rude awakening for developed economies, whereas Africa is used to a rough ride. Another speaker, who runs a large financial services group in South Africa, points to Africa's quick recovery as evidence of the stronger base that exists now as opposed to 20 years ago. And foreign direct investment to Africa recently exceeded foreign aid to Africa for the first time--a strange metric of reslience, if you ask me.
Mobile is the Hero
The metric that keeps coming up over and again in the short presentations this morning is 400 million--the number of people in Africa with mobile phones. Whenever people talk about entrepreneurship and innovation coming out of Africa they use mobile phones as the primary example. Not just people on the outside, but the community of leaders in this room. Speakers cite "pay as you go," "M-Pesa," and "mPedigree" as evidence of Africa's ability to innovate for the rest of the world. Another describes the 1 million Internet bankers that her company serves in South Africa, primarily through mobiles. Her goal is to make her products more and more relevant to this mobile base. That is their primary engine for growth. She describes a new banking service they are deploying called "Cash Send" that is more than just a digital transfer. It is accessible to anyone, not just someone who is with her bank. And, more importantly, the funds do not need to be drawn out all at once. They can be accessed over time. So it can serve as a digital wallet of sorts.
From Bandwidth to Electricity
The conversation keeps turning to infrastructure as the biggest barrier to economic growth, with examples like shipping containers in Singapore with RFID tags that take seconds to scan. This requires bandwidth, something all of the execs in the room seem to agree is the critical resource needed here in Africa. Interestingly, an executive from a Canadian technology firm counters by asking the leaders assembled about the prospect of reliable electricity, particularly in rural areas of Africa. Bandwidth is not going to help you much if you do not have power! A second executive, this one from Kenya, describes how the municipal government of Nairobi has been unable to implement a viable waste management solution. Puts their fiber-optic dreams in perspective.
Not surprisingly, there is big gap between the growth agendas at the national level and the challenges of working with local municipalities, like Nairobi. When this gap is raised as an issue, the finance minister switches into language that could be pulled from the Obama administration--talking about a new approach that they are using that is "outcomes-based" and relies on "performance agreements" with local agencies. That language is met with some skepticism in the room. Accountability is a pretty tricky design problem, though I am probably the only one in the audience who sees it that way.
Looking for the Big Answers
The main event finally kicks off with a brainstorming session on a massive scale. I try to give the WEF the benefit of the doubt on this as I am herded into a huge conference hall and find an empty seat with a random group of 10 participants who look just as confused as me. We are instructed to spend 30 minutes identifying the biggest opportunity for growth facing Africa. Some kind of a warm-up exercise could have really helped. But that is not the style around here. On my right is a former president of Tanzania and on my left is a member of Parliament from Bhutan who is visiting Africa for the first time. How exactly are we going to get the ball rolling? There is too much that could be said on this topic. So, too little ends up getting said, unfortunately. Not much brainstorming involved. Our statement is something about "using education to empower youth and women." Don't need the former president of Tanzania to figure that out (though it is an amazing to testament to the WEF that they got him to play along). The trick is "how" to do it! Wish there was more dialogue on that level here at the forum. But it is sorely lacking throughout the day.
Seems like the formula for most of the panels and sessions is to get the big names on stage and then ask them the big questions and hope something useful comes out. While there are a few bright spots, such as Ajai Chowdhry, founder of HCL , most of the execs and politicians are not up to the task. Instead we get a lot of talk about "investing in human potential..." You can see the speakers struggling to say something substantive. But the format is not designed for that kind of discussion. This is particularly true when the panel includes the current head of state.
Finding Meaningful Answers
The content is better in the hallway discussions. I am fortunate to have arranged a meeting with Gene Falk, who runs Mothers 2 Mothers , an NGO based in South Africa that is succeeding on a remarkable scale with a very simple design. I had first heard about M2M through a family friend when I visited South Africa in 2006. M2M won a Social Entrepreneur award here in 2009 and is now part of the WEF family. Which is good news for me as I have been trying to catch up with them for some time.
The basic story is this: Dr. Mitch Besser was working as a doctor in a clinic in South Africa during the initial ARV rollout in 2001 but he was finding it almost impossible to explain to HIV positive mothers the steps they needed to take. So he enlisted a few of his best patients to communicate for him. And it worked--very, very well. Since that time he has built an organization, with the help of Gene (an ex-Viacom executive) that employs 1,700 HIV positive "Women Mentors" in seven countries across Africa to counsel HIV positive mothers. They counsel 30,000 women/month, 400,000/year--equivalent to 20% of the estimated HIV positive mothers on the continent. Wow!
What is interesting to me is how they have managed to overlay this system on top of the existing health-care infrastructure, creating a scalable mechanism for engaging communities in health issues. This is no small nut to crack (as I have learned on Project Masiluleke ). So many public health efforts are focused on increasing capacity within the existing health-care system, not increasing capacity within the broader community. And, so many mobile health solutions assume that a community will emerge spontaneously around new communication tools. These guys have created a cost-effective solution with remarkable reach from a simple idea. I hope to hear about more initiatives like this over the next few days. This kind of program is why I am here.
Read Robert's first WEF post 8 Lessons for Creating Social Impact 
Robert Fabricant is a leader of frog's health-care expert group, a cross-disciplinary global team that works collectively to share best practices and build frog's health-care capabilities. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert recently led Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat the world's worst HIV and AIDS epidemic in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Robert is an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts where he teaches a foundation course in Interaction Design. In 2009, he joined the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York and is a faculty member of the Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellowship Program. A regular speaker at conferences and events, Robert recently gave a keynote speech at the 2009 IxDA Interaction Conference. He is a frequent contributor to a wide variety of publications, including I.D. Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.