Rwanda: Country of Contradictions

These days, I spend a lot of my time traveling. Fundraising, speaking, sure — but the best kind of travel is visiting Vittana youth in countries all around the world.

I always ask what we’re doing right, how we’ve screwed up, and whether we’re living up to their hopes and dreams. Trust me, they don’t hold back — I’ve gotten an earful a few times!

In the past several months, I’ve been through Rwanda, Jordan and the Philippines. They always remind me of growing up in India — countries of deep contradiction, with pockets of very real opportunity amidst extreme, palpable poverty.

Take Rwanda for instance. What do you think of first when you hear Rwanda? The genocide, right?

It’s been 18 years. And that’s such a symbolic number. The babies being born in those tragic moments are today finishing basic schooling and yearning for more. It’s a new generation of hope — nearly 80% of Rwandan youth are literate.

Tourism is booming. People from all over the world visit Rwanda for its amazing safaris and gorilla treks. Hotels abound in Kigali — little hostels, 5-star luxury resorts charging $500 a night. Marriott is opening its first hotel in all of Africa in Rwanda.

And yet, 90% of Rwandan youth and their families still live on subsistence farming.

What’s holding them back? One year of education. The difference between a girl who knows how to read and write and one who knows how to write a few lines of HTML? It’s night and day.

Option A: It’s a girl sitting in a thatched hut on her family’s one-acre farm, boiling cassava for her little brother so he can eat when he gets home from the fields.

Option B: It’s a girl who’s learned a livelihood, found a job that triples her earning power — maybe as Marriott’s new webmaster — and developed a sense of herself in the world.

The contradiction is sometimes simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring — so far ahead, yet so close.

Peace, from a girl (and boy) in Rwanda

Stop Building Dumb Stuff

We don’t need a Facebook for dogs and we don’t need a 300th link shortener.

Non-profit folks sometimes tease me about tech entrepreneurs building useless stuff. (I’m the token techie at a lot of conferences.) But really, non-profits aren’t much better. So often, we just put in bandaids.

How long did it take us to find a malaria vaccine? We’re so close. Mosquito nets are great, but what if we’d really taken a chance and thrown our weight behind a vaccine earlier?

Nathan Myhrvold at Seattle's Social Innovation Fast Pitch
Nathan Myhrvold at SIFP last week; photo credit GeekWire

A few days ago, I attended Seattle’s 2nd-annual Social Innovation Fast Pitch. Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO of Microsoft and the keynote speaker, came out guns blazing:

It’s great you can kill aliens with Xbox at a faster rate than ever before, but we didn’t really need our lives changed. The fact is, there are people who do need their lives changed.

You know something? Most of your ideas will fail and I’m completely OK with that.

Whatever you think of sometimes-controversial Nathan (he’s also the CEO of Intellectual Ventures, which has an aggressive patent stance), this is something near and dear to my heart. And he’s dead right.

When I was starting Vittana in 2008, I remember getting laughed out of several meetings. “This’ll never work,” people said. “If I give you money and you fail, that means I wasted my $1,000 — I could’ve given to Red Cross instead and been sure of impact.” (It turns out education does work and it’s hard to be sure.)

Nathan and I got a chance to talk for a few minutes before his keynote. He’s a razor-smart guy (obvious, really — not anyone ends up Microsoft’s CTO) and I’m excited he’s challenging folks to think differently. A bit of our discussion:

Yes, there’s a direct cost of failure. But, there’s also the opportunity cost of not trying. Looking for a malaria vaccine might be riskier than simply buying a mosquito net, but once you find the cure, you’re done — once and for all. But, if you never try, you’ll be buying mosquito nets forever.

If you never put down a big bet, you’ll never change the world. It’ll just stay the exact same place. What’s the point of that?

And let’s not even get started about trying to build (another) link shortener. For-profit, non-profit, B-corps — it’s tax status, not religion. Anyone can build cool stuff.

Make meaning, not money

Guy Kawasaki

Worm-free World: Finding a cure for kids with worms in Africa
Wormfree World on Microryza (also photo credit)

One of the SIFP finalists, Microryza, has an awesome project up right now to find a cure for parasitic worms that affect malnourished children in Africa. (Disclosure: I’m an advisor.)

These are exactly the sorts of innovative projects that’ll never get funded through usual means because they shake things up. Check it out and see if you can contribute — I just made a $100 donation.

UPDATE 10/22 10am: Woah! Hello Hacker News! Sorry for the slow site — I wasn’t expecting 4,000+ hits/hour.

UPDATE 10/22 12pm: Caching enabled and available memory quadrupled — site should be stable now. Let me know if you run into trouble.