Where Africa and Technology Collide!

But, Where Were the Hippos!?

Hippos vs cheetahsA recent article in the Economist about there not being enough hippos at TED Global is pretty interesting. Actually, scratch that, it’s not very interesting at all, in fact it’s disappointing that this is the best article about the recent conference in Tanzania to come out of a magazine like the Economist.

There were notably few of the hard-knuckle African politicians who often run the interior or defence ministry or act as kingmakers, sometimes bankrolling rotten presidents.

The backstory here is from George Ayittey’s brilliant speech in Arusha, where he likened the TED Fellows and other entrepreneurs present as the “Cheetahs” willing to do anything, regardless of government help, to succeed and make Africa better. Whereas the “Hippos” were the old guard of politicians and big business who were happy to wallow in their role as victims of colonialism and poverty.

Ethan takes it a step further, where he poses that the World Economic Forum could be labeled Hippocon, while TED was where the Cheetah generation could be found.

My question is why was this person from the Economist so fixated on there not being enough hippos? Is it because that’s the only way he sees things getting done in Africa? If he believes that is so, then he’s missing the bigger picture. The message at TED was that regardless of the hippos, the cheetahs will find a way to make change happen.

The story wasn’t that there weren’t any hippos at TED, it’s that they are becoming irrelevant.

[Hat tip to Ory, and image credits to 13 months]


  1. “The backstory here is from George Ayittey’s brilliant speech in Arusha, where he likened the TED Fellows and other entrepreneurs present as the “Cheetahs” willing to do anything, regardless of government help, to get succeed and make Africa better.”

    Spot-on! We’re not waiting for governments any more. It’s all for the love of our continent and the hope of seeing some level of tangible development. The fact that we didn’t have “enough” hippos at TED is a testament to the zeal for a new way of thinking about and moving the continent forward.

  2. “… it’s disappointing that this is the best article about the recent conference in Tanzania to come out of a magazine like the Economist.”

    I couldn’t agree more. A lumbering, clumsy, hippo-like piece which completely missed the real story of TEDGlobal. Thank goodness for the blogosphere.

  3. The term “Cheetah” does come with a lot of responsibility…one we must live up to! 10 years down the line we will peer review….to see which of the “Cheetahs” have caught prey…and how many have turned into “Hippos”! Both “Cheetahs” and “Hippos” are not born that way….



  4. ok, i think hippos is a bad analogy u ca only use that if u have never been around hippos – hippos are fast and dangerous.

    I think thes use of terms separating generations sounds very familiar to me – rememebr the’ new generation of leaders’ the ‘englightened leaders’
    – thats the terms that was used for meles,issayas,museveni,kabila, even mugabe – look at there records of war in africa.

    as for ayittey – reminds me of the shakespear quote – ‘thou protests a little too much – me thinks’

    the cheatahs and Hippos have to live together in the same environmental its not one vs the other
    besides most of the progressive leaders in africa have been the older presidents — look at the record. compared to the youthful president wh stayed for long.

  5. So, the “hippos vs cheetah” terminology at its root is just a framework for helping us understand things.

    Binyavanga Wainaina put it most eloquently when he explained that we need to do a better job of framing things for Africans, and for non-Africans, to understand what is going on in their lives. We need to tell better stories.

    What George Ayittey did better than almost anyone else at TED Global was give us a framework that we could visualize and grasp on to. His powerful speech is why we discuss “cheetahs” and “hippos” today.

    Am I overly optimistic about the cheetah generation? Am I a little unbalanced in my viewpoints on where this generation will take us?

    Maybe. Only time will really tell.

    However, I choose to live my life optimistically, putting faith in my fellows (my generation) to do great things. I don’t default to doubting people, I choose to believe that they will succeed, and I will help them if I can.

    To those in our generation, the hippos do play a role. However; technology, the shrinking world we live in and the speed of life are all tools that help us get around the roadblocks of life that the hippos thrust in our way. So, they are becoming less relevant – every day there are more ways to new money in Africa than ever before. The hippos bureaucratic ways can’t stop that.

    Can the cheetah generation learn from the hippos? Definitely. Can the hippos learn from the cheetahs? Sure. Will they have to work together at some point to succeed? In many cases, yes.

    Lastly, did the Economist miss the point of TED Global? Yes… emphatically.

  6. Hi all,
    I would say Cheetah need either clever or hand-off Hippos, but a Hippos still can be a nuisance, like it is in Zimbabwe right now.
    And I truly agree with all of you: innovation, rupture come with young people and they need some support for that.
    Very soon, Venture Capital will provide such a support for great ideas all around Africa!

  7. One of the things George made clear off stage was that hippos killed a lot in water. The analogy here was of ideas, progress, etc.

    Whilst on land the cheetahs saw opportunities chased them and made sure of them.

    I think at this speech he made it clear that cheetahs were needed to take us forward on land, rather than lumbering along like hippos do at the moment.

  8. Hash,
    I think you underestimate the role “hippos” play. They set up the rules of the playing field. That is huge. And since “hippo” is definitive of a mindset, and not age, I would argue that the “hippo” generation will be with us for a long time. Just look at the Kenyan election circus for a current example.

    Activities such as TED have their place and are to be commended. However, till we actually rope in those who lay claim to power, I think it will still be a long hard slog.

    The Economist writer was just trying to point that out that technology can never be a panacea for the ills on our continent.

  9. I missed this article and just saw it now…I’ll blog my bit, but let me just say that the Economist correspondent was rarely seen in the main hall or talking with any of the TED Fellows. I think perhaps he went to a different conference that also happened to take place in Arusha. Or at least that is how the Economist piece reads.

  10. Thanks for a brilliant entry… It makes me think of the book by Ernesto Sirolli, called “Ripples in the Zambezi”: It tells the true story of an Italian development agency working next to the Zambezi, and investing heavily in agriculture infrastructure and equipment to plant vegetables. The local people laughed at them saying it will never work! They continue until harvest time, and wake one morning to see the ripples in the Zambezi, and nothing remaining in the fields….


    The point being: Always trust local intelligence!

  11. Heh. Great story MeerKatje.

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