What happens when a group of dedicated African professionals imagines a conference about the continent’s future?
On 6 December 2014, at the Mermaid Conference and Events Centre in London, approximately 600 Africans milled about exchanging loud greetings and speaking excitedly in accents from various parts of the continent, while waiting for the start of one of the most anticipated African ideas conferences of the year: TEDxEuston. The attendees all wore white name badges with the trademark bold red lettering of the now nearly ubiquitous TEDx conferences which take place at various times in various cities around the world.
Getting to this point took 12 months of preparation by 22 volunteers helping to invite and curate talks by 15 speakers. There were 600 attendees, six video cameras, live updates on Facebook, Twitter, and sharing via YouTube so that the entire African community on the continent and in the Diaspora could engage with a whole new set of ideas about Africa’s future.
“It is the only of this scale conference held in London that is run entirely by Africans for Africans – or those with a deep interest in Africa – within the UK context,” said Chikwe Ihekweazu, one of the founding members of TEDxEuston. Ihekweazu is the leader of the 22-person group of African professionals that works tirelessly to put together the event each year.
The idea for TEDxEuston developed after Ihekweazu and his business partner and physician, Ike Anya, attended the TED Global conference in Arusha, Tanzania as 2007 TED fellows. They were both living in the UK at the time, but made the trip to the continent especially to attend the event. It was a moment that impacted them significantly. “It was the very first time we came across Africans that we admired speaking on a global scale, and whom we saw as true role models,” said Ihekweazu. “It was what these people said and the success and confidence they portrayed. We were both so inspired by their talks that we seriously contemplated abandoning our ongoing medical specialisation to return to Africa to do our bit in shaping the continent’s future.”
It was not possible for either Ihekweazu or Anya to move back to the Africa at that time, so they had to find another solution. Why not organise an African-based TED event in London? They approached the TED organisers, who suggested they explore the option of hosting their event via the independent arm of TED, otherwise known as TEDx. “It made perfect sense,” said Ihekweazu. “We could put on an amazing African-focused conference while still remaining in Europe.”
TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, was originally founded in 1984 by the American architect and graphic designer, Richard Saul Wurman, as a forum for discussion on cutting-edge technology and thought. It was later acquired by the British-born media entrepreneur Chris Anderson, who enhanced its global appeal by opening it up from its here thereto “invitation only” nature and putting a selection of the talks online, openly available to everyone. This exclusive gathering of the world’s most forward thinking individuals where each attendee was expected to pay $4,000 per yearly conference was no longer the exclusive preserve of the rich. Counterintuitively, this apparently drove up the demand for tickets to TED. In recent years, with the power of the internet, the TED conference has become a global event, with many of its most popular 20-minute talks shared on numerous social media platforms and viewed millions of times by millions of people around the globe. The TEDx platform was a way of further engaging viewers by allowing independent organizers to arrange ideas conferences under the TED umbrella.
Since its first conference in 2009, TEDxEuston has brought together attendees from all over the UK and Europe and Africa. The formula on-the-day is simple. Each conference has a specific theme. For instance, the 2014 conference topic was Facing Forward, which focused on the quest to find innovative solutions to the current problems that confront Africa. There is a selection of speakers –all of African origin (although this does not have to be the case) – that each have a 18-minute slot in which to present their idea on the theme in front of a paying audience. Each speaker is filmed, and the videos are posted online so that anyone in the world can watch the talks in their own time.
At first glance TEDxEuston appears a lot like the usual conference or seminar set up. Most conferences are designed to facilitate networking among delegates. There is generally a theme that links the different talks together. And normally, there is a specific business strategy behind the event to ensure that the organisers and sponsors benefit – often financially – from the running of the event.
But TEDxEuston is not your typical conference. “There is no corporate agenda. There is no business strategy,” Ihekweazu said. “In fact, ever since we started the event five years ago, each one has been organised organically by the team.” The team to which Ihekweazu refers is a mix of lawyers, doctors, and tech professionals, together with a psychologist and a physiotherapist.
Adaugo Amajuoyi is a foundation doctor at James Paget hospital, and organising team member of TEDxEuston. She has been part of the TEDxEuston group since its inception. Her first role was standing behind the event reception desk, helping to register conference delegates. Six conferences later, she now hosts TEDxEuston alongside Ihekweazu, introducing speakers on stage in front of the 600-strong audience. “Unlike many other organisations, there is no hierarchy in the TEDxEuston team,” she said. “You can put forward your ideas and suggestions freely, try your hand at different roles. I felt very comfortable – even as a young student – making suggestions about how we can run the event, and each year my involvement in the event grew.”
Another crucial point of difference from other conferences, says Ihekweazu, is that there is no profit for anyone involved in TEDxEuston. “Not one cent. Everyone volunteers their time. Any funds that are raised all goes back into the conference,” he said. For the average person it is a struggle to get out of bed for a paying, eight-hour day job, let alone spending one’s precious free moments organising an event that does not offer any financial remuneration. In fact, said Ihekweazu, “it takes up an extortionate amount of time to deliver this event. It takes a lot out of us. It requires a level of passion, of dedication that I don’t think we could pay for, even if we had the money available.”
For Amajuoyi, her tireless work on the TEDxEuston conference is fuelled by her desire to get encouraging and considered narratives of Africa out into the public arena. “There is no denying it, it is a lot of work,” she said. “But knowing that we are capturing positive and thought-provoking stories about Africa, and communicating them to the world, makes all the work worth it.”
‘Africa’ and ‘positive’ are not often associated with each other, especially in the international arena. It is an unfortunate fact that the majority of events that garner the greatest global media attention are largely negative. The kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls and the Ebola outbreak were two of the biggest news stories to hit the papers last year. Yet for Zain Asher, a CNN news anchor who is also the younger sister of the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and a speaker at the 2014 TEDxEuston conference held last December, the representations of Africa are slowly but surely beginning to change. “Twenty years ago people tended to see Africa as a place that was backward, that had major human rights issues that Africans were extremely poor,” she said. “That is starting to change now as corporations see Africa as a huge opportunity for growth.” The statistics back Asher’s statement. According to a report by the Africa Economic Outlook, East and West Africa recorded the fastest growth in 2013, at 6 percent or above. “Perceptions of Africa are slowly changing,” said Asher. Yet she feels that more can be done to find solutions to the problems that dog the motherland. “It is our responsibility to find solutions to these problems.”
That is primarily what the 2014 TEDxEuston conference was about. According to Amajuoyi, the team sought out a theme that would not only reflect Africa’s journey forward towards betterment, but which would spark active dialogue about different ways in which Africa’s issues could potentially be resolved. “While brainstorming ideas, we were inspired by the famous quote by Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, ‘We face neither east nor west; we face forward’. So we decided to make this the theme of the event, to get people to talk specifically about how they believe Africa can resolve its issues and truly flourish,” Amajuoyi said.
TEDxEuston is not only about celebrating stories of success and prosperity, however. It is also an arena to express differing opinions on the continent. “When we hold TEDx events we want to bring diversity to what is reported on the news about our continent,” Ihekweazu said. According to Ali Mafuriki, a speaker at the 2014 conference and founder of the highly successful Infotech Investment Group, based in Tanzania, there are still misconceptions about Africa’s level of success as perceived by outsiders. Speaking of the hype around the recent discovery of oil and gas in parts of the continent, Mafuriki expressed concern that emphasis is being placed on the wrong kind of natural resource. “People from outside Africa who discover these new resources get so carried away,” he said. “And we all sing this song of discovery and prosperity. But at this same time, something else is unfolding. The world’s population is increasing and resources are scarce. But it is not energy resources, like oil and gas that we are lacking. It is, in my opinion, fresh water. And the amount of water available is not keeping up with our increasing population.” He believes the African continent holds a fair amount of fresh water resources and will be at the centre for a new resource scramble.
Selecting speakers who provide alternative points of view, such as that of Mafuriki, is crucial to the success of the TEDx- Euston, Amajuoyi believes. “We look for people with different stories, stories that reveal the unexpected,” she said. “It is not important to have celebrities. Rather, it is the quality of their stories that matters most to us.” The TEDxEuston team recruits speakers from a wide range of backgrounds and professions. The previous six conferences have seen news anchors, footballers, comediennes, even a blind music producer, grace the stage and tell their stories. “We select speakers that have done something that we think is not only exceptional, but who also lead their lives in a way that we think we would like others to emulate,” said Ihekweazu.
The ‘others’ to which Ihekweazu refers are not merely the 600-odd UK and European-based delegates who attend the conference. In order to get the stories out into the wider public space, six cameras are hired to film each of the speakers. The footage is edited and uploaded onto the various TEDxEuston social media channels, which include Facebook, Twitter, You- Tube, and its own website. Filming is by far the biggest cost of the conference, but it has paid off handsomely. Since broad- casting its first video in 2009, the TEDxEuston Youtube site has scored over two million hits, with more than 90 percent of the views coming from the African continent. “It is an incredible achievement,” said Ihekweazu, “and evidence that these stories are attracting the attention of African natives and hopefully having a positive impact on them.
Yet the question lies herein: what kind of success does the TEDxEuston team hope to achieve by spreading these stories? “We want to encourage people to give something back to Africa, in some way, shape or form,” said Ihekweazu. “We want to positively impact the lives of Africans based in the UK, in Europe and on the continent itself.” Ihekweazu believes that the event’s level of success is not solely measured in terms of the number of attendees, the caliber of speakers or the number of YouTube hits. It is much more personal than that, he says: “So many people have come to us saying, ‘I have had this idea (to help Africa) for years. I’ve been sitting on the fence, mulling over whether I should do it or not. I was looking for courage, and attending your event has helped me to bring my idea to life.’”