After graduating from MIT as a Sloan Fellow in 2012, Claude Grunitzky founded TRUE Africa as a news and culture website to promote African perspectives about modern Africa. In 2019, Grunitzky, a research affiliate at CIS, launched his next venture—TRUE Africa University (TAU)—which is currently incubated at the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL). He created and produces the MIT X TAU webinar series.
The image above left is from "The Great Green Wall" documentary about an African-led movement with an epic ambition to grow an 8,000km natural wonder of the world across the entire width of Africa. The Wall promises to be a compelling solution to the many urgent threats not only facing the African Continent, but the global community as a whole—notably climate change, drought, famine, conflict and migration. The documentary was executive produced by Grunitzky, alongside Fernando Meirelles, the director of “City of God,” “The Constant Gardener,” and “The Two Popes.” The award-winning “The Great Green Wall” premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2019.
précis: Given your work in media and now education in Africa, what role do you see for new digital platforms planning in Africa? How has the pandemic changed your view?
CG: As a native son of Togo who was raised on the continent, but also raised in France, the UK, and the US, I see the pandemic as changing pretty much everything about Africa, especially in terms of development. Access to phones and smartphones is really influencing the way that young Africans see the world. I'll give three specific examples of areas that could be transformative for Africa’s sustainable development.
The first is telemedicine. The pandemic has forced a lot of people with smartphones to look for telemedicine solutions due to the lack of access to proper healthcare. However, inconsistent rules among African countries’ regulations make it harder for telemedicine startups to grow and service populations in the way they should. The second change is in financial technology. This is enabling Africans to move away from cash-based economies. Fifty percent of the startup money that's been flowing to Africa consistently over the last five years has been focused on fintech.
The third is education. I founded my African media platform TRUE Africa because I wanted to find a way to champion young African voices and tell African stories as opposed to constantly having Western views of Africa being the dominant narrative of reporting. Through this experience in media, I noticed that education was the missing link. A lot of young Africans that I was engaging with—and that my editors and writers were engaging with through TRUE Africa—did not have the education they needed to fully understand the world and the way it is evolving. That's why I decided to launch TRUE Africa University (TAU). The goal of TAU is to accelerate development in Africa by bringing some of the best tools for learning to the continent. Fortunately Sanjay Sarma, the vice president for Open Learning at MIT, supported this initiative and invited me to incubate it at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab.
précis: What do you see as the impact of COVID-19 on African youth more broadly? What is your message to the African youth you work with, especially in the wake of the pandemic?
CG: I am most hopeful about the new tech ecosystems that are emerging all over the continent, because these tech ecosystems are attracting the best and brightest Africans. A lot of these people don't necessarily have the most formal education, but they're identifying African solutions to African problems. There is a disconnect, however, between young Africans and older Africans who are still the ruling class. A lot of African governments are very much living in the past and not pushing for reforms that would position technology at the center of economic development for Africa. This issue of authority dictated by elders has stunted African growth in my opinion. Growing up in Togo, we were taught not to speak if you are young and to listen to the elders. Some countries in Africa are helping to foster environments where tech ecosystems can flourish. Tunisia is a trendsetter in this area. It enacted legislation to push for tax incentives and paid leave for young entrepreneurs to launch startups. Morocco has also made progress and other countries are starting to do that. But it's taking a while, because Africa’s reinvention can only come through technology and innovation led by these young entrepreneurs. These are the youth that I write about and am hoping to help educate on the TRUE Africa University platform.
précis: The “Africa Rising” narrative has been a dominant feature of the current discourse surrounding Africa’s trajectory. What trends do you see, particularly in regards to young tech entrepreneurs? What is the pandemic’s impact? What do you see as the differences between start-up culture between that in the US or what you saw at MIT?
CG: The Africa Rising narrative was just another media slogan created to help attract foreign direct investment to the continent. This is a good thing, but it oversimplifies African issues that are often very, very complex. If we look at Africa Rising—and look at it systemically across the entire African continent—we realize that there are multiple Africas and most are not rising. On the issue of digital connectivity, for instance, most of that infrastructure is nonexistent across rural areas. In metropolises like Lagos—which in some ways is the economic and cultural capital of Africa —or Nairobi, you'll see high-speed internet that works pretty much like in New York, Boston, Paris, or London. You’ll see co-working spaces and tech hubs. That's great, but the people who are responsible for African development—the governments and big corporate leaders who are called African champions and run the largest corporations in Africa—have not pushed for an infrastructure rollout that would benefit the poor. Half of African consumers of the internet don't use the internet to access content that they need in order to be more productive across telemedicine, fintech, or even education tech. The Africa Rising narrative is a victim of politics. The first thing that these governments need to do is provide access to electricity and then, in turn, boost Internet connectivity across rural, urban, and suburban areas in order for ecommerce and digital services to truly grow and enable Africa to reach its potential.
précis: In the "Great Green Wall" documentary we learned about how climate change drives migration, often leading to disastrous outcomes for African youth. How do you think migration will affect the African youth population you're discussing and how does the education platform fit into this trend?
CG: It was very important for me to produce a film about climate change in Africa. I partnered with the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles to produce the Great Green Wall (GGW), which documents one of the most urgent movements of our times. GGW is an African-led initiative that aims to grow an 8000-kilometer mosaic of trees across the entire width of the African continent. This will transform the lives of millions of Africans living in despair, because it's going to provide food security and new jobs for people who often migrate illegally to southern Europe. GGW will help prevent desertification across that entire Sahel region, from Senegal all the way to Djibouti. So it's going to help with biodiversity and a lot of the direct effects of climate change. Lastly, it is going to give hope to Africans who will take pride in having created their own solution as opposed to always expecting that Europeans, Americans, and Chinese are going to come and save us. The colonial mentality is still very present with a lot of leaders that are in place in Africa right now. GGW is a grassroots African-led movement that is led by the African Union. It’s going to give a new sense of pride to young Africans and engender more awareness of climate change issues. A lot of the young Africans think that climate change is a white man's concept and really something that only affects Europe and developed countries. They don't realize the devastating effects that it's having on the African continent. To help address this issue, I launched an introductory course that started on July 19 and lasted for six weeks so that 55 young Africans can learn about the African perspective on climate change. Through a call for nominations, we were able to identify students, handpicked from 20 countries in Africa. We had applicants from 33 of the 54 African countries! The course focused on various expert perspectives on how climate change is affecting African people. We're going to look at the policies and possible solutions that will help to protect communities all over the African continent, not just along the Great Green Wall, but also in other parts of Africa. With Africa’s population growing so fast, this is a really important issue and I want TRUE Africa University to be at the forefront of reporting on it and helping students work on project-based assignments around climate solutions such as the Great Green Wall.
précis: Closer to home, you’ve been leading the MIT x TAU webinar series, which was hosted by CIS and its MIT Africa Program. How has the series been going? What are your main takeaways from the experience?
CG: I really loved the 11-week series that we produced from March to May, because the audience and the participants responded well to these live webinars. We made it very conversational, but we also wanted to make it educational and first and foremost relevant to Africans on the continent. I think the reason it was successful—and one of the reasons we're going to start a second season in March 2022—is because of the diversity of speakers that we were able to feature. Our interviewees ranged from academics like Jeffrey Sachs and Evan Lieberman, to entrepreneurs like Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, and creative economy leaders like the writer Taiye Selasi. We also had venture capitalists like Maya Horgan Famodu, who has a Nigerian father and a white American mother from Minneapolis. She moved to Lagos in her early 20s to launch a VC firm to fund these new tech startups. We offered a balance of views from the African diaspora and the African continent and were able to address some of the key issues facing Africa from a sustainable development perspective.
précis: George Floyd’s murder and the recently heightened awareness around racial inequality have been dominating the US news. Have you been engaging in the issue on your platform and from the perspective of the African diaspora?
CG: It’s a major issue. On the TRUE Africa media platform (trueafrica.co), we did a lot of reporting on the Black Lives Matter movement pre and post George Floyd actually. I was one of the first people to write about Black Lives Matter back in 2014 after the events in Ferguson because I met and became friends with Opal Tometi who is one of the three co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. I've been documenting the cultural shift that they have been pushing for seven years now. Our reporting accelerated after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 because I felt a lot of the needed change in mentality that is related to the inferiority complex many people associate with black people will come from African American leaders. I've been pushing for a global viewpoint on Black Lives Matter because the most relevant calls for action that come out of the Black Lives Matter movement can and should be adapted to the various contexts in Africa, and also the African diaspora in Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America. I have spent my entire career trying to promote the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, who was a Jamaican-born Black nationalist and leader of the Pan-African movement. His goal is my goal as well. In the early 20th century, he sought to connect and unify people of African descent worldwide. What we are trying to do with media and education is continue along the lineage of Marcus Garvey by uniting Black people around the world. I believe that Black Lives Matter is pretty much at the forefront of that movement of unity, where African Americans can also relate more to Africans from the continent whether they are living in Europe, the Caribbean, or Latin America. I hope that TRUE Africa University will become useful and powerful as a platform of education and expression, because we're bringing Black voices and also non-Black voices to development issues that affect the African continent, and Black people around the world. So this is a project of a lifetime. I've been at it for two decades now, and I intend to continue this work for at least a few more decades.
précis: You’ve spent considerable amount of time at MIT, both as a student and now as a research affiliate. How, in your opinion, have MIT’s engagements with Africa evolved since you were a student?
CG: That's a great question. I could go on and on but I’ll try to answer it concisely. I came to MIT at a really interesting period in my life. I was in my late 30s and had just sold my media company TRACE, which was (and still is) a successful venture that was funded by Goldman Sachs. A lot of my friends thought I was crazy to then come to MIT to become a student again as a successful entrepreneur. But I came to MIT because I wanted to unlearn a lot of the things that I had learned as a media entrepreneur. Most importantly, I wanted to approach digital technologies with a fresh lens. I did a lot of listening when I was at MIT. Before coming to MIT, I was used to being the first and last person speaking as the founder or the chairman and CEO. At MIT, I became just one student amongst many. It taught me humility and the power of discourse through open dialogue centered on new ideas and that MIT desire to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. It also helped me to develop my new vision. I had a very clear idea coming into MIT that I wanted to continue in media, but not in traditional media, where I’d honed my skills since I was in my early 20s. I knew I wanted to focus on Africa and development in Africa, but I didn't know how specifically my interests would manifest. At MIT, I met several people who ended up having a huge effect over my career choices, including the decision to launch TRUE Africa University. Sandy Pentland and Joost Bonsen at the MIT Media Lab helped me shape the vision for TRUE Africa. Sanjay Sarma helped by providing opportunities to explore my ideas through the open learning channels that he oversees. John Tirman helped me philosophically shape what I was trying to achieve and provided a platform at CIS to launch the TAU webinars.