Filmmaker Declan McCormack looks at how mobile phones and the internet are changing lives in east Africa
Last month, the World Economic Forum on Africa came to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. It was the first time that this select group of world leaders and influential figures from business, academia and civil society have chosen east Africa as their venue to discuss the continent's future.
Many observers felt the timing was appropriate as a period of strong economic growth is predicted for the region. Not least because high-speed underwater fibre optic cables have finally arrived, bringing broadband capacity to east Africa for the first time, which promises to seriously reduce the cost of doing business with this part of the world.
For many development specialists the time is also right to reassess the role that international aid plays in Africa, especially with regard to stimulating business development in the region. One person with a firm opinion on that subject is British social entrepreneur Clive Lightfoot, who argues "aid money should go to the public good. You've got to train up rural folks to be able to do business. At the moment too many are just being trained up to engage in the next development project, to get their next handout".
Lightfoot is, of course, being provocative, but his words reveal a frustration born from experience. Over the last 10 years, with the support of the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), he and his business partner, Ueli Scheuermeier, have built a network of small businesses across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The network provides market access services to farmer groups, helping the poorest of the region's people to shake off their donor dependence by getting better prices for their produce.
And now with the arrival of modern communications, this business knowledge network shows great potential. Its comparative advantage lies in having a great number of boots on the ground, with hundreds of entrepreneurs at markets, big and small, across the region all exchanging market intelligence daily to secure deals.
Recently, this progress has led Lightfoot's company RAVI, Rural African Ventures Investments, to provide small loans to the network's entrepreneurs. "The idea of RAVI loans is to provide these small businesses with an opportunity to grow. With access to a little finance they can build a business track record and then be in a position to approach local banks for commercial loans, which at the moment are impossible for them to secure."
By building local networks of entrepreneurs and improving their access to local finance to further develop commercial market access services for small farmers, Lightfoot is convinced that the private sector attending future World Economic Forums would be enticed to invest in east Africa.
RAVI is currently working in partnership with Traidcraft, the UK-based fair trade organisation that is providing business training to network members.
"What is essential is to improve the investment environment. If aid money is used to do that then the private money will follow. And networks like ours, which have been developed by public money but are now fully private operations, could actually act as a risk mitigating mechanism for those investors because of their cohesion and the communication infrastructure that they have built around them."
Declan McCormack is a filmmaker who has spent much of the last five years documenting the successes and failures of business-oriented development projects in developing countries. Reports from various parts of the world can be seen on his website Flooded Cellar