July 31, 2009

'Girl Taxi' Service Provides Safety for Women, by Women

The Wall Street Journal published an article by Don Duncan, "'Girl Taxi' Service Offers Haven to Beirut's Women," about an innovative solution to women's transportation problems in Beirut, Lebanon. 45-year-old Nawal Yaghi Fakhri launched Nayaghi Banet Taxi in March 2009 with just three cars and three drivers. Banet Taxi, which means "girl taxi" in Arabic, is a pink taxi car service for women and by women. Mr. Duncan writes, Ms. Fakhri's "fleet of late-model Peugeots has grown five-fold since" launching in March "with enough drivers to provide 24-hour service. She is hoping to double her fleet this summer, to 24 cars." (Photo courtesy of Banet Taxi)

Banet Taxi provides essential services to women who live and work in Beirut, or to conservative Muslim women visiting the Lebanese capital. In a country like Lebanon where the private sector is succeeding and the politically volatile public sector is failing, Banet Taxi provides employment opportunities to female taxi drivers like Maya Buhaidai, 34. Ms. Buhaidai says, "I like being one of the few female taxi drivers in Lebanon. And I like the work. It's easy, it's fun and I get to talk and laugh with my passengers."

Banet Taxi allow female passengers travel safely through the busy streets of Beirut without being harassed by male taxi drivers. Mr. Duncan's article explains, "As the sun sets, Ms. Buhaidai drives passenger Lamia Samaha, 37, from a suburb on the mountain slope to the busy central Beirut district of Hamra. Along the way, they chat about the news, TV shows and children. 'I am at ease because I am accompanied by a woman. I sometimes find men hard to handle,' says Ms. Samaha, causing her and her driver to laugh heartily. It is the promise of a safe and uneventful ride that attracts a wide range of female passengers: older women who want a quiet drive, young women out partying until late at night, and even preschoolers put in the cars by their teachers."

Banet Taxi provides conservative Muslim women residing outside of Lebanon the option of traveling to Beirut independently while adhering to rules prohibiting traveling with unknown men. The company "is positioned to reap the benefits of the summer tourist season, an estimated $1.7 billion industry, with about 30% of revenues coming from conservative Muslim visitors from Gulf states. Once the summer bump in business is over, Ms. Fakhri expects demand for her fleet to remain as strong as it has been in her first quarter of business. That will put her on target to bring in at least $200,000 in sales for 2009 -- a full return on her initial investment, she says."

Banet Taxi "is part of a regional trend. Entrepreneurs across the Middle East have recognized the business potential in offering secure transportation options for women. Banet Taxi follows on the heels of successful women-only transportation models in Dubai, Tehran and Cairo." Here is a video that provides additional details of Banet Taxi and the benefits provided to women in Beirut:

July 28, 2009

UN Report Recommends Building a New Developmental State

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) released a report, Least Developed Countries Report 2009, on July 16, 2009 that explains, according to a UN press release, the global economic recession "'should be grasped as a turning point' for the so-called Least Developed Countries (LDCs) – a classification grouping the 49 poorest States around the globe." The Report "argues that the impact of the global economic crisis is likely to be so severe in the least developed countries that 'business as usual' is no longer possible. This will necessitate a rethinking of the development paradigm. The magnitude of the crisis offers both the necessity and an opportunity for change. Coping with the impact of the crisis in LDCs will require an innovative and informed policy design response. But beyond this, new policy approaches are necessary to ensure that development after the crisis will be more resilient and more inclusive." Established in 1964, UNCTAD promotes the development-friendly integration of developing countries into the world economy.

The Report further explains the adverse impact on the real economy and the cost in terms of lost output and employment. While "most advanced economies are in recession and emerging markets are undergoing significant slowdowns...LDCs are likely to be particularly hard hit in the coming period." Since LDCs "are deeply integrated into the global economy, they are highly exposed to external shocks. Moreover, many are still suffering the adverse impact of recent energy and food crises, and they have the least capacity to cope with yet another major economic disruption. The combination of high exposure to shocks as well as weak resilience to those shocks is likely to mean that the LDCs, which already face chronic development challenges, will be harder hit than most other developing countries."

Addressing external vulnerability of LDCs resulting from their high level of indebtedness, according to the Report, LDCs' "debt burden represents on average 42 per cent of gross national income, compared to 26 per cent in other developing countries before the crisis. As UNCTAD has repeatedly warned in recent months, there is the potential for a new debt crisis to emerge in poor countries. For many LDCs, the current crisis can jeopardize their hard-won debt sustainability."

The Report simply does not soley focus on how LDCs can cope with the shortterm immediate impact of the crisis, but how can they emerge from the crisis in a stronger position? What policies should they be crafting now for the post-crisis era? The Report suggests evaluating policies in three areas:

  • Firstly, there is even more reason now to refocus policy attention on developing productive capacities. This means that policies should be oriented towards stimulating productive investment, building technological capabilities, and strengthening linkages within and across sectors and between different enterprises. Strengthening domestic productive capacities should also be aimed at producing a wider range of more sophisticated products;
  • Secondly, it is necessary to build a new developmental state. This is not a matter of going back to old-style development planning, but rather a question of finding new forms of development governance appropriate for the twenty-first century. Such development governance would be founded on a strategic collaboration between the state and the private sector, that will encourage the structural transformation of LDCs from agrarian to postagrarian economies; and
  • Thirdly, it is necessary to ensure effective multilateral support to LDCs. This is not simply a question of more and better aid, but also the design of rules that govern international economic relationships with regard to trade, finance, investment and technology flows, in ways which would support development in LDCs. It is also critical that support for LDCs does not impose unnecessary limits to the measures that governments can take to promote development, structural transformation and poverty reduction.

LDCs must take a new approach on how to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) and create a new investment strategy that focuses in education, health care, capacity building in the public sector, public infrastructure development and maintenance, protection of natural resources, and private sector development. Industrialized nations cannot maintain the same approach of providing financial aid to LDCs and this aid should support comprehensive development strategies that include transparent, accountable deliverables and defined measurements for success. Similarly how the recession is forcing corporations to change their business practices, governments including the LDCs should also amend their policies to achieve sustainable growth potential.

July 23, 2009

IMF Grants $600m Loan to Ghana: Who Will it Help?

The following is a guest post by Samantha Rayner, Executive Director of Lumana Credit

In a rush of excitement, a friend approached me the other day stating that the IMF had announced that they would provide a loan in the amount of US$600 million to the Ghanaian government in an effort "to reduce its budget deficit and support its currency" (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/8155374.stm). While I could see the need for funding, I didn't jump to share my friend's optimism. Whenever the IMF announces the provision of more aid to Africa, I have to ask, how is it going to help and what accountability system is in place to ensure results?

True, Ghana is experiencing a serious budget deficit mostly due to a decrease in rainfall over the past few years which caused an increase in food prices. There is clearly a need for aid but how are these funds going to get to the rural farmers who need the monetary assistance most? Driving through the neighborhoods of Accra, Ghana's capital, in August of 2008, I was amazed to see immaculate government mansions only minutes away from poor slum dwellers and beggars. It instantly became clear that funds such as those from the IMF were not going to the poorest of the poor.

Seeing the income disparity first hand and wondering where all the aid money was really going, I took action upon my return to the US and started my own organization, Lumana Credit. We are a microfinance operation that provides small loans, entrepreneurship training, and simple technology solutions to small businesses in rural Ghana. Lumana focuses on serving clients in rural areas of Africa as opposed to urban settings where the majority of microfinance institutions (MFIs) are located.

While much attention has been given to microfinance in Africa in recent years, surprisingly less that 10% of the industry financing is actually going there.India, for example, recieves around half of the capital, primarily due to the high density of clients which causes operational costs to be lower. In Africa, over 75% of those living below the poverty line are located in rural areas, a potential reason for the lack of microfinance funds going to the continent.

Referring back to the $600 million loan to Ghana this year, imagine if those funds were going into microfinance institutes? Poor people with access to savings, credit, insurance, and other financial services, are more resilient and better able to cope with the everyday crises they face. Even the most rigorous studies have proven that microfinance can smooth consumption levels and significantly reduce the need to sell assets to meet basic needs. With loans as little as $50 in some cases, people like Comfort, a Lumana client, would able to purchase clean water for the first time and improve the profits of her porridge selling business. Unfortunately, I have a hard time seeing the IMF funds going to people like Comfort.

Samantha Rayner is the Executive Director of Lumana Credit, a Seattle, Washington-based nonprofit micro-credit organization that focuses on serving rural and underserved populations in Ghana. To learn more about Lumana Credit, please visit http://www.lumana.org/.

July 22, 2009

Sustainable Product Index: Will Walmart's Initiative Create a New Industry Standard?

On a couple of occasions in this blog, I have discussed how multinational corporations are developing corporate responsibility programs in an effort to become better global citizens and increase value of their products purchased by customers. During a meeting with 1,500 of its suppliers, associates and sustainability leaders on July 16, 2009, Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. announced a new initiative that will address the sustainability of their products.

According to the company's press release, the worldwide sustainable product index "will establish a single source of data for evaluating the sustainability of products." Speaking at the Sustainability Milestone Meeting, Mike Duke, Walmart's President and Chief Executive Officer, said, "The index will bring about a more transparent supply chain, drive product innovation and, ultimately, provide consumers the information they need to assess the sustainability of products. If we work together, we can create a new retail standard for the 21st century."

Walmart created a fact sheet (PDF) that provides details of the Sustainable Product Index including three reasons for creating the index:
  • The world's population is increasing. It is estimated that the global population will reach nine billion by 2050;
  • The world’s natural resources are decreasing. Natural resources for everything we grow, eat, drink, make, package, buy, transport and throw away is outpacing the earth's capacity to sustain it; and
  • Customers want more efficient, longer lasting, better performing products. They want to know the materials in the product are safe, that it is made well, and the product was produced in a responsible way.
As explained in its press release, "Walmart will introduce the initiative in three phases beginning with a survey of its more than 100,000 suppliers around the world. The survey includes 15 questions (PDF) that will serve as a tool for Walmart's suppliers to evaluate their own sustainability efforts." The questions will focus on four areas: energy and climate (reducing energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions); material efficiency (reducing waste and enhancing quality); natural resources (producing high quality, responsibly sourced raw materials); and people and community (ensuring responsible and ethical production).

During his presentation at the Sustainability Milestone Meeting, John Fleming, Executive Vice President and Chief Merchandising Officer for Walmart U.S. said, "The survey will include simple but powerful questions covering familiar territory, such as the location of our suppliers' factories, along with new areas like water use and solid waste. The questions aren't complicated but we've never before systematically asked for this kind of information. The survey is a key first step toward establishing real transparency in our supply chain."

As a second step, outlined in the company's fact sheet, Walmart "is helping create a consortium of universities that will collaborate with suppliers, retailers, NGOs and government to develop a global database of information on the lifecycle of products -- from raw materials to disposal. Walmart has provided the initial funding for the Sustainability Index Consortium, and invited all retailers and suppliers to contribute. The company will also partner with one or more leading technology companies to create an open platform that will power the index."

The final step consists of creating a tool for customers. This tool will "provide customers with product information in a simple, convenient, easy to understand rating, so they can make choices and consume in a more sustainable way. How that information is delivered to consumers is still undetermined, but could take the form of a numeric score, color code or some other type of label. The sustainability consortium will help determine the scoring process in the coming months and years."

Mr. Fleming also made an excellent statement saying "the merchant of the future will be focused on the entire product life-cycle management." Other retailers should take note of the buying trends that goes beyond price consideration. Customers will consider the raw materials, transportation, and people behind the manufacturing, shipping, distributing and selling of the merchandise.

July 13, 2009

Impressions of Obama's Visit to Ghana

Official White House photo
by Chuck Kennedy
Many of my friends and colleagues have asked about my impressions of President Obama's recent visit to Ghana. Specifically, will Mr. Obama's visit increase foreign direct investment (FDI) into Africa? Will highlighting Ghana's successes in democracy and rule of law motivate other nations to expedite policy changes? Mr. Obama's speech to the Ghanaian Parliament on July 11, 2009 focused "on four areas that are critical to the future of Africa and the entire developing world: democracy, opportunity, health, and the peaceful resolution of conflict." I will discuss the first two points in this blog.

Addressing the issue of democracy, Mr. Obama said, "Governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful than governments that do not. This is about more than just holding elections. It's also about what happens between elections. Repression can take many forms, and too many nations, even those that have elections, are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves -- or if police -- if police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top -- or the head of the Port Authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there. And now is the time for that style of governance to end."

Ghanaians created a good example when Mr. Obama said, "Across Africa, we've seen countless examples of people taking control of their destiny, and making change from the bottom up." As I discussed in this blog, Ghana's presidential election, and subsequent run-off election on December 28, 2008, represented Ghanaians' support of the democractic process and self-determination. In John Atta Mills' narrow victory over Nana Akufo-Addo, each candidate and their respective supporters, and all Ghanaians respected the election process that allowed for a peaceful political transition.

Regarding creating economic opportunities, I agree with Mr. Obama, "With better governance...Africa holds the promise of a broader base of prosperity." Africans are very entrepreneurial and there are many investment opportunities in agriculture, banking, information and communications technology (including mobile applications), manufacturing, and renewable energy. Regarding renewable energy, Africa could be a natural research and development center testing the latest innovative solutions to meet the energy demands in developing and industrialized nations alike. "Think about it: Across Africa, there is bountiful wind and solar power; geothermal energy and biofuels. From the Rift Valley to the North African deserts; from the Western coasts to South Africa's crops -- Africa's boundless natural gifts can generate its own power, while exporting profitable, clean energy abroad," said Mr. Obama.

I am unsure if Mr. Obama's visit will have a direct impact on increasing FDI, but his visit exemplifies Ghana's success in building a stable democracy that supports rule of law and creating a business climate that will attract the attention of investors in the coming years.

I also want to mention Julia Wilson's interview on CNBC about investing in Africa (video is posted below). Ms. Wilson is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Wilson Global Communications LLC, an integrated marketing communications and strategic public relations consultancy headquartered in Washington, D.C. Ms. Wilson noted there are great risks in investing in Africa, but investors have to perform their due diligence just like they would for any market. Furthermore, according to Ms. Wilson, investors should take a regional approach to investing in Africa. I support this strategy, which is similar to the approach investors often make when investing in Europe or large geographic nations such as India and China. While I agree there are several opportunities, in Ms. Wilson’s words, "to help Africans help themselves," Africans must continue the path to eradicate corruption and promote operational transparency.

Like his recent predecessors, Mr. Obama's trip has highlighted the success and opportunities that exist in Africa. Young people make up a large percentage of Africa's population, which make them significant producers and consumers in a global economy. As Mr. Obama explained, "Africans have shown the capacity and commitment to create their own opportunities. But old habits must also be broken." The time is now for Africa to demonstrate their willingness and ability to participate proactively in a vastly global economy.

Aaron Rose is an advisor to talented entrepreneurs and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of Solutions for a Sustainable World.

July 9, 2009

New Investment Monitoring Platform to Assist Investors in Africa

One of my key frustrations in launching new business ventures in Africa or helping African nations develop foreign direct investment initiatives is having insufficient or inaccurate information when making key business decisions. One of the benefits of the Internet is having easy access to essential information that facilitates the ability to conduct business effectively and transparently. On July 9, 2009, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the African Union Commission announced the launching of a new tool, the Investment Monitoring Platform, designed in partnership with the Microsoft Corporation, that will map investment flows in Africa and offer investors more information for analysis and decision making.

According to UNIDO's press release, "The new Investment Monitoring Platform will provide data and information on the characteristics of foreign and domestic investors, as well as their motivations, actions, perceptions, intentions, and impact." UNIDO further explains, "The data on the platform will be supplied through bi-annual surveys of both foreign and domestic investors conducted in more than 20 African countries by UNIDO." With the goal of covering 22 countries by the end of October, the first surveys will commence on July 23, 2009 in Kenya and Senegal.

In addition to being supported by the African Union Commission, says UNIDO, the Investment Monitoring Platform is "financed by the European Union Commission, the Governments of Austria, Italy, Turkey and South Africa. It is the result of the collaboration between UNIDO and the Investment Promotion Agencies Network (AfrIPANet), established in 2001 and currently comprising more than 40 members throughout Africa. One of its objective is to promote partnerships among investment promotion and industrial development stakeholders at the national and regional levels."

In expressing his support for this innovative initiative, UNIDO Director-General, Kandeh K. Yumkella said, "The information gathered will also allow for a better understanding of the impact of the global financial crisis on investment flows in Africa. It will help Government and national agencies design more effective investment and business policies, promotion strategies and services that respond to investor needs, and formulate viable industrialization strategies for the continent."

There are great investment opportunities throughout Africa, but corruption and the lack of transactional transparency are key barriers that force investors to look at other markets. I hope the Investment Monitoring Platform will deliver the results intended to assist investors in making sound business decisions.

July 1, 2009

Medical Monitoring through Mobile Devices

There are two articles worth mentioning about delivering health care services through mobile communication devices. The Wall Street Journal published an article authored by Ms. Fawn Johnson of Dow Jones Newswires on June 23, 2009, "Medical Monitoring, Cell Phone Industries Joining Force," explaining that "medical device makers are forging a new partnership with the cell-phone industry to allow doctors to remotely monitor their patients' heart rhythms, body temperature and breathing rates, with the goal of saving billions in hospitalization costs." San Diego, California-based West Wireless Health Institute (WWHI), one of the world's first medical research organizations dedicated to advancing health and well-being through the use of wireless technologies, issued a press release announcing it will collaborate with San Jose, California-based Corventis, Inc. for WWHI's first clinical research program. "Corventis is a developer of wireless cardiovascular solutions designed to enable early detection, prevention and treatment of cardiovascular conditions," according to the press release.

Ms. Johnson writes, "The Band Aid-like heart patch from Corventis sends patient readings through a Bluetooth wireless connection to the person's smart phone - an iPhone or a BlackBerry. The data is then transmitted to a doctor's office. Physicians are alerted if their patient shows irregularities. Other device makers are waiting in the wings for similar trials, hoping to win over the people who ultimately would pay for their products - doctors, private insurance companies, and the government." Dr. Eric Topol, WWHI's chief medical officer, is quoted as saying, "'The goal is to get it used in medicine, to get [government] reimbursement, to shake up how medicine is practiced.'" WWHI's press release further says, "Corventis will work closely with [WWHI's] clinical research and wireless engineering teams to ensure the research devices improve the existing level of care, and are safe, reliable and cost effective."

InternetNews.com published an article, "CTIA Seeking Mobile Health Care Mandate," written by Mr. Kenneth Corbin on June 24, 2009 saying "the trade association representing the wireless industry is ramping up its mHealth campaign to raise awareness of the potential of mobile devices to improve the nation's health care system." Utilizing the latest technology in improving the United States' health care system has become a primary issue as the result of Congress appropriating $19 billion for health IT initiatives in the economic stimulus package.

Regarding the Congressional funding, Mr. Corbin writes that the money, by statute, "is to be allocated to projects that meet a 'meaningful use' criterion, a slippery term that Congress left to the Department of Health and Human Services to define. HHS currently has an open proceeding to develop a definition, and it is unclear what existing or emerging wireless technologies will qualify. However, an official from the department today offered a bullish forecast for the potential of remote-monitoring devices to improve health care."

While the discussion of health reform and technology has focused on electronic health records, "advocates of mobile health care are highlighting more dynamic applications that could automate the process of providing care," says Mr. Corbin. "These applications, most powered by sensors, run the gamut from cardiac-monitoring devices to smart pills that notify a medical facility when they have been ingested."

The mobile application industry for smartphones is growing exponentially on a daily basis. Mr. Corbin notes that "in Apple's iPhone app store alone, there are more than 1,500 health applications. Intel and GE, two companies playing in the space, have projected that home health care monitoring will grow to a $7.7 billion market by 2012. Much of the promise of wireless health IT centers on removing the human element from mundane tasks like recording the data that diabetes patients are supposed to enter in diaries each time they take a glucose reading. If the device were connected to a network, the readings would be transmitted instantly and automatically, which would improve the quality of data doctors receive."