March 31, 2008

The Work

I haven’t written much about the actual project I’m working on here in SA. Part of that is the sincerely amusing irony that I work more now as a “volunteer” than I generally do as a paid consultant. So by the end of the day, when I do sit down to write, I’m often trying not to think about “work.” But lately, I eat, breathe, sleep, even IV inject my project, so there’s been no time for writing at all. (Much love to those of you who actually read this blog. Even more love to those who send me emails asking why I’m not writing. =))

When I first arrived I thought simple SMS information solutions would be the route to go for loveLife’s mobile program. In the US, it’s the cheapest, easiest and least technologically taxing of mobile tools, so it seemed like a logical choice. What I quickly learned, however, is that South Africa is in a whole other playing field than America.

For starters, SA has one of the highest mobile internet usage rates in the world. Forget the computer age, Africa (like many other developing countries) has leapfrogged directly into the mobile future. No need to lay cables. No reason to buy expensive hardware. Just access the web on your favorite personal device, your phone. Oh and by the way, it will cost you nearly nothing to do so. Data transmission rates are a fraction of a cent in US dollars, sometimes per hour of roaming.

Second, South Africa has a particularly unique combination of market forces: cosmopolitan (read wealthy) hubs of Jo’burg and Cape Town have created an incredibly sophisticated advertising industry + essentially little to no mobile regulation. So as mobile uptake skyrockets, advertisers are readily funding entrepreneurs to figure out how to reach people on their phones, who in turn have already tested all the possible models. The winner: MXit. 7.6 million kids, with tens of thousands joining each day, chatting away over the mobile internet (as opposed to SMS) using this tool. Ask any South African kid what they do all day, and they’ll tell you they’re on MXit.

The third piece of the project strategy puzzle is loveLife itself.

(1) loveLife has the most massive on-the-ground NGO footprint I’ve ever seen. Through youth centers, community partnerships, school & government programs, and a huge peer education network, loveLife literally reaches millions of kids with face-to-face interaction every year. On top of that, they have one of South Africa’s largest media holdings, with massive reach on TV, radio, outdoor, and the country’s largest youth publication, with a 650,000+ print circulation. Most in the international community don’t realize this, but no one can reach the South African youth market the way loveLife can.

(2) loveLife has learned that what works in other places, doesn’t work in South Africa. Kids here get the HIV prevention message; they hear it everywhere. They don’t listen, however, because they don’t care. Day-to-day life for most young South Africans offers little to no opportunity. You have no money, no access, no hope, and sadly thanks to the AIDS epidemic, likely no family or community to guide you through either. HIV is just a tiny bump compared to life’s many other hurdles.

In response, loveLife has moved from direct HIV prevention messaging to a more holistic approach. Their 2008 media campaign is working to shift young people’s perception of opportunity, while their massive on-the-ground program will give South African youth direct access to tools, skills development, and information to “Make Your Move,” the campaign’s tag.

(Here’s the campaign teaser ad, designed simply to introduce the concept of “Make Your Move” and get kids to call their Call Center to find out more.)

So after all of this explanation, what am I doing for loveLife on mobile: we’re developing (potentially/hopefully) South Africa’s largest mobile social network.

More tomorrow on why and how. (I have to sleep at some point. =))

March 19, 2008

When Load-Shedding Plans Your Life

It's getting colder in Johannesburg. Which means people are turning on their heat and using more electricity. Which also means Eskom has started load-shedding again. The papers have printed the load-shedding "schedule." Unfortunately, Eskom doesn't always follow it, but either way it's really not good fun. For starters, vanity goes out the door when you quickly realize you will not be able to use your hair dyer in the mornings (not to mention the fact that you're freezing out of the shower anyway since there's no heat). But much worse, if you're in the areas that have load shedding from 6pm-10pm, you can't make dinner for your children, relax with TV, or really do anything except sit and stare at each other by candlelight. And let's not forget the issue of the electric gates. Two friends have already called this week locked out in search of something to do until the lights come back on.

Perhaps even worse than everyone's individual annoyances will be the economic impact. Three days a week our offices now have no electricity until 10am, two hours after office hours begin. (And we just happen to be located in the same area as all of the banks, law firms, major high end stores, etc.) On top of that, every time Eskom announces price hikes or load shedding the value of the rand plummets. I can't complain about the exchange rate, but there are certainly plenty of reasons for concern around South Africa's electricity issues.

March 18, 2008

Cape Town

When I first decided to move to South Africa, the only thing I knew was that I wanted to live in Cape Town. The original plan was to “rock up” in CT (as they say here) and sort out the details of what I would do once I landed. For years I’ve heard about the beauty of Table Mountain and the serenity of Africa’s southern most beaches, and after my first visit to Cape Town, I must say everything everyone said is true.

But as fate would have it, the CEO of loveLife asked me if I would come to Johannesburg instead. He asked me to give him six weeks in Jo’burg to help develop the mobile strategy, and then if I still wanted to move to Cape Town, I could easily execute the strategy from there. Turns out I’m a big fan of fate.

For starters, I don’t think I’d ever get any work done in Cape Town. I could easily spend hours on end just staring up at the mountain or down on the gorgeous beach (and I’m certain I’m not the only one). Secondly, Cape Town – although incredibly cosmopolitan – is a beach town. And like any beach town, life just moves a little slower. On vacation, I think that pace is fantastic. For day-to-day life, not so much.

But perhaps the main reason I couldn’t live in Cape Town is the very obvious racial segregation. When my friend Mitch and I went to visit last week, we stayed in Camps Bay, which admittedly is one of the nicer parts of town, tucked directly in between the mountain and the beach with spectacular views of each. It is also apparently occupied by pretty much Whites only. On our first night out, we headed to a restaurant down the street and were both fairly shocked that there wasn’t a single Black patron, only staff. I know in many parts of the world this isn’t terribly uncommon, but White people only make up 9% of South Africa.

Then, the next night we went out to Long Street, essentially the Bourbon Street of Cape Town with literally a long stretch of bars, clubs and merry people hanging out in the streets. We began at the top of the street and realized pretty quickly that there were White bars and Black bars on Long Street. There was even one point in the night when we looked around and realized that all the White people were on one side of the street and the Black folks on the other. Mitch and I just stopped and looked at each other in awe.

Self-segregation probably doesn’t seem too terribly shocking a mere 14 years after the end of apartheid. But Johannesburg does not suffer from the same issue. Part of this is that proportionally there are a larger percentage of Whites in Cape Town than in any other part of SA at 23%. Another part is that Cape Town is largely a tourist town with a fair share of the property owned by foreigners. But the biggest issue is that unlike Johannesburg, Cape Town has no Black middle class to speak of. And even in the most gorgeous setting, the poverty is pretty in your face – literally with children waiting outside of restaurants begging for change.

In the end, I’m tremendously grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to visit Cape Town. Standing on top of Table Mountain is a spiritual experience, and I would recommend it to anyone. Driving alongside the mountain looking over at the Atlantic’s water crashing on the rocks is consistently breathtaking. And at any given moment while in CT you can turn around and be in complete awe of nature.

I will continue to visit Cape Town and visit often. But ironically enough I don't think I could live there.

March 7, 2008

The People of South Africa

I’m currently procrastinating. I need to finish packing as I fly out to Cape Town early in the morning, but I’ve reached that point in the night where sleep is fairly pointless.

One of the many things I’ve done tonight (besides not sleep) is to take a quick look back at my blog entries thus far. And I’ve noticed that I’ve spent a lot of time writing about South African culture and society, but I don’t think in doing so I’ve done justice to this country’s people.

Hands down, without question, the people I have met in South Africa have been some of the nicest, most caring and helpful people I’ve ever met (going above and beyond even the kindest of Southern hospitality, I must say).

I came to this country literally knowing no one. So I spent the four months prior telling everyone I knew that if they happened to know anyone in SA to let me know. Through that process, I’ve created a network of friends in Johannesburg and Cape Town who are in reality actually friends of friends of friends of friends (no exaggeration). Yet everyone has welcomed me with immensely open arms. They invite me out whenever they’re going anywhere. They constantly give me advice about places to go and things to do. They drove me all around town before I got my car. And they continue to check on me to make sure I’m doing ok, even one’s I haven’t had the opportunity to meet yet.

Through everyone’s kindness, I’ve been learning an interesting lesson about asking for help. Coming from New York, where fierce independence is a cultural norm, I expected to have to figure things out on my own in SA. But here, not asking for help is practically offensive. For example, I didn’t ask anyone to take me to the airport, as I assumed I should just take a taxi. But when I mentioned this to a friend, he looked at me like I was insane and said, “Why didn’t you just ask me to take you?” I honestly didn’t have a response; it just didn’t occur to me. He then said, “When you don’t ask, it makes me think we’re not friends.” I’ve never explicitly thought of asking for help as a sign of friendship, but I suppose that makes perfect sense.

Maybe I’ve just been living in New York too long. :)

March 6, 2008

Presidential Politics

At least once a day I get an email, SMS, or forwarded article about the US Presidential Election. For all who know me and my love of politics, there is both a sense of immense excitement in everyone’s messages and a nearly equal amount of awe that I’m “missing it all.”

The truth is that I calculated this trip so I would be away specifically during the primaries. I knew it was going to be crazy, and I wanted to step back and gain some perspective. Although I could have never anticipated it would be as crazy as it’s been, being on the outside looking in has been incredibly interesting.

For one, it’s much easier to see all the media bias. South African newspapers don’t believe America is capable of electing a woman or black man, so they’ve placed their bets on John McCain, “the old white man” as they say. (This coming from a country whose likely next President, ANC-Chair Jacob Zuma, faces charges of corruption, fraud, money laundering and racketeering. Not to mention he has four wives and eighteen children and is likely to marry a fifth soon.) The New York Times, on the other hand, clearly loves Barack. I used to think it was just the op-ed page, but now I see it pretty much everywhere. Part of that is Obama’s charm, part is the public perception of Hillary’s lack thereof. And part of it, from a true objective (and well documented) perspective is that the media has never exactly been friendly to Hillary.

As for my thoughts on the race - honestly, I don’t know. Every day, every poll, and every (generally useless) pundit brings in a new frame on what this race is about. More interesting to me than those reports are the stories I’m hearing. My twenty-two year old younger brother, for example, recently told me he’s become a Hillary fan. A self-proclaimed moderate who consistently disagrees with my progressive views, particularly when I wax poetic about women in politics, I was a little surprised.

“What brought you to that conclusion?”

“She really seems to have her act together, and I think she can get stuff done.”


“Yeah, but I can’t really tell anyone, because as a young person if you’re not a Obama supporter it’s sort of like you’re a traitor.”


Politics is rarely polite dinner conversation, but it’s much more unique for it to have infiltrated the social lives of America’s college age set.

This brought me to my second thought from SA – the surge of young people in politics this election cycle. I spent the last two presidential elections talking to tens of thousands of young people about why voting is important. The overwhelming apathy was resounding, no matter what cool new free stuff I was giving away. But with the right inspiration and the right candidate, a lot of that has seemed to change. Young people simply wanted someone who speaks to them. Makes sense.

And I am thrilled that young people are engaged and inspired, but I’m also a little bit worried, because I’m not sure it’s sustainable. Not all elections can be historic (In fact, local elections, which affect one’s day-to-day life most, are the LEAST historic. They’re down right boring.) And all candidates simply will not have the oratory skill of Barack, Bill or JFK. (Again, when’s the last time your Senator, Governor, or Mayor got you excited about something?) It is true that we expect the most from our Presidents, and to some degree they have a duty to inspire, but I feel like we’re all tuning in to watch Michael Jordan on the court without having a clue as to how the game of basketball is played.

So as I sit and watch the show from a continent on the other side of the world, I am both thrilled and frightened by the excitement of this year’s primaries. Everyone is plugged in like it’s the Super Bowl, but what happens when the game ends and the real work of governing has to begin? Will anyone stay tuned?