Barren Harvest

 What possible medical breakthroughs will be lost to climate change?

By: Vivian Kobusingye Birchall

Did you know that even in 2019 we are still discovering new medical uses for plants? Now, think of how many plants of medicinal value we may have already lost to climate change. 
Earlier this year, I attended the Harvard Global Health Catalyst summit at which the International Institute for Phytomedicines was launched as part of an effort to convert potential high-impact medicinal plants to evidence-based pharmaceutical grade products for global health and economic development. One of the plants being researched is Justica carnea, believed to contain hemoglobin. 

During one of his visits to his ancestral home in Cameroon, Dr. Wilfred Nwa, an Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, witnessed local households using the plant on patients exhibiting anemic symptoms and as a scientist, he was curious enough to bring the plant to a laboratory in the USA to research its phytochemical characteristics. This could be a big breakthrough in hematology for people who suffer from acute blood loss or chronic anemia and cannot receive blood transfusion because they have reactions to IV iron transfusions, or their religious beliefs prevent them from doing so.
This is just one example of a plant that could potentially save lives, if researched and made available to the public. 

However, climate change is a threat to biodiversity and plant species globally, and thus to the advancement of medical research. Medicinal plants are at stake, possibly getting wiped out through desertification, excess heat, wild forest fires like those in the Amazon, hurricanes, mudslides and other climate and weather events.

Every passing day, the human race is scrambling to deal with the effects of climate change, and also with emerging health issues.  Some health issues were previously treated with various species of plants and are now treated with compounds derived from plants. Scientists may want to study related species, but find they face the threat of extinction. If the world continues with this trend, we face the threat of a “barren harvest,” not just in the context of food, but also medicinal plants.

Historically, many communities used medicinal plants to treat various conditions, before the advent of modern medicine.  While some of these plants have already been characterized, they account for only about 15 percent of known species, with 85 percent yet to be explored.

Some of the medicinal plants’ contribution to contemporary medicine include quinine, which for many years was on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines. Quinine, which is believed to have been used since 1631 to treat malaria, and most recently to treat lupus and arthritis, was derived from the bark of a cinchona tree. However, the cinchona family has 24 species recognized by botanists. Could we save the known species, and are there more that have not been discovered? These are questions we need to reflect upon.

Other concerns have been raised about threats to human settlement from climate change, such as displacement due to natural disasters due to rising sea levels, mudslides, and heat stress. This systemic displacement takes people away from the plant ecosystems they know and brings about depression.

We can draw from a previous environmental catastrophe, the Dust Bowl during the 1930’s that damaged the ecology and agriculture of the America’s South and Canadian prairies. This was not a result of climate change, but it is a reminder of what happens when we fail to become good land stewards.  In the American Economic Review, Richard Hornbeck analyzed the economic impact of the American dustbowl. According to his analysis, more-eroded counties experienced large and permanent relative declines in agricultural land values: the per-acre value of farmland declined by 30 percent in high-erosion counties and by 17 percent in medium-erosion counties, relative to changes in low-erosion counties. 

However, I would like to focus on the medical impact. Reports show that during this period, Dust Pneumonia – whose symptoms are fever, chest pain and difficulty breathing – killed an estimated 7,000 people. It is of concern that researchers at Princeton published new findings that the dust bowl could occur again as a result of climate change and could stir up fertilizers, and other hazardous material in soil. It is critical that the world acknowledges the threat of climate change to our medical advancement, livelihood and existence. 

Pro-actively, medical researchers, government and health-related non-profits need to fast-track the exploration and research of medicinal plants, while the species are still available. We may have a short window to learn about these plants if environmental and land stewardship habits do not improve.  


1.   Hornbeck, Richard. 2012. “The Enduring Impact of the American Dust Bowl: Short- and Long-Run Adjustments to Environmental Catastrophe.” American Economic Review 102 (4) (June): 1477-1507. doi:10.1257/aer.102.4.1477.
 2. The paper, “Projection of American dustiness in the late 21st century due to climate change,” was published July 17, 2017 in the journal Scientific Reports (doi 10.1038/s41598-017-05431-9 ) and is available online.

Electric power trends in the United States and opportunities for investment in Africa

Life as we know it is significantly influenced by electricity. In health care, it is critical for storing vaccines at a controlled temperature, performing surgical procedures, diagnosis, and imaging. Other uses include lighting our homes, powering electronics, powering transportation (trains, cars, navigation systems et al), powering industries, agro-processing, storage of perishable food, and entertainment - to mention but a few. How well do we in the United States understand the generation and distribution of electricity globally, and what are the underlying issues in communities that are experiencing challenges of access to electric power? What are the opportunities for investment in the electric power sector in the United States and in Africa, and how can we ignite stakeholder action to invest in the sector to improve electrification globally?

Mr. Lamine Savadogo and Ms. Vivian Birchall at the Acton TV studio

I recently sat down with Mr. Lamine Savadogo, PrĂ©sident of Marison Energy Systems Corporation and Global Ambassador for Edison Electric Institute – International Programs to talk about the importance of electrification in economic development in the world, the trends of electrification in the United States, challenges in Africa, and opportunities for investment in the electric power sector. He has worked in the electric power sector since 1994, and his company provides intermediation between the United States and Africa. Over the years, he has worked with the U.S State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources, the U.S Trade and Development Agency, governments and utility companies in Africa, and private electric power companies in different parts of the world. 

Mr. Savadogo at the Global Electrification Forum
Edison Electric Institute HQ, 2018, Washington DC
As a United States citizen of Ugandan origin, I have been intrigued by the history and structure of electricity in the United States - from whale oil to hydropower, coal, natural gas, nuclear energy and renewable energy. I admire America’s stable, secured and highly regulated electricity infrastructure, recognizing the hard work and discipline that went into creating it.  This has triggered me to reflect upon possible solutions to improve electrification in Sub Saharan Africa.  

My experience, like that of many communities in Africa, was one of struggling to work or study after sunset due to limited lighting. If electricity was unavailable, the alternatives were often using candles or kerosene lamps to study.  To cook, iron, or keep food warm overnight, we would use charcoal or firewood that women and children would walk long distances to collect.  It is no that women and children in sub-Saharan Africa, who often sit around smoky fires cooking, are exposed to respiratory challenges.

My desire to understand the electric power sector led me to chat with an expert in the industry. As a resident, it has been helpful to understand the role of the Public Utilities Commission in overseeing investor-owned electric power, natural gas, and water companies in Massachusetts, the birthplace of Benjamin Franklin - one of the founding fathers of the United States and the inventor the electric battery and the lightning rod.

As one would expect, the electricity sector has developed since Franklin’s time, and in recent decades transitioned due to climate change concerns. The sector is now focused on decarbonization, digitalization and distributed generation on electric power. There are advancements in renewable energy technology and innovation in storage and digitization. However, this is mostly true in the United States and in other developed countries. 
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “In 2018, Massachusetts generated 67% of its electricity from natural gas and none from coal, making Massachusetts the third New England state without coal-fired generation. Almost all the rest of Massachusetts' electricity generation came from nuclear power and renewables.” And “By March 2019, Massachusetts ranked fifth in the nation in installed solar photovoltaic generation capacity with 2,354 megawatts of utility-scale and small-scale solar PV capacity.”  But even so, few receive all their electricity from renewable sources. Although many homes here in Massachusetts have solar panels, most are also connected to the grid. 

Mr. Lamine Savadogo (left) at the Gulf Cooperation Council's Interconnection Agency's
Power Trading Forum, 2019, Kuwait
Ouarzazate Solar Power Station, Morocco
Source: S2A_tile_20190320_29RQQ

Elsewhere in the world, Morocco, the only African country with a power cable link to Europe, has built one of the largest solar power plants in the world, providing about 580 megawatts on 6,000 acres of land, as a response to the need for renewable energy. This plant is believed to save the planet from over 760,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. Some of the funders of this project include the World Bank and European Development Bank. 

Saudi Arabia is also diversifying its energy sector from predominantly oil to solar power. The down side to the solar panels across the world is that they have a life cycle and some of these are made up of products that are not bio-degradable at the end of their life cycle.

Many emerging economies are still grappling with electrification and yet there are dependent relationships between electricity and health, electricity and urbanization, electricity and transportation. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa experience voltage drops, and power outages causing serious challenges and in some cases loss of lives when they affect critical sectors like health care. The challenges that have dwarfed the electric power sector in much of Africa and in developing countries elsewhere are not necessarily due to the absence of natural resources, but rather the lack of tools of production including critical software, hardware and skilled personnel. There are also political hinderances which have created dysfunctional systems. 

Mr. Savadogo has worked with United States government and businesses to understand the challenges  and complexities in the electric power sector in different countries in Africa and to develop strategies for doing business in Africa, and works with the African stakeholders to identify  solutions available in the United States that could be applied to overcome constraints to advancing electric power in their environment.

According to him, the future of energy is electricity, and the US is on track. He specifically notes that in the area of transportation, automobile companies are predicted by experts to move from combustion engines to electric engines. Local municipalities and States could buy electric or hybrid cars for their fleet and through zoning laws plan to accommodate the need for more charging stations for the increasing number of electric cars.  

On the other hand, electrification in Africa is still lagging.  This situation provides the opportunity for private-sector Investment in the electric power industry because of the overwhelming need to have adequate electric power to meet the very basic needs, such as pumping clean water for domestic use, saving lives in hospitals, processing and preserving agro-products and advancing education. 

Image source: Atlas of Africa Energy Resources

By: Vivian K. Birchall


Planning for Economic Development in Africa

The continent of Africa is rich in natural resources that support the main economic activities of its individual countries.  In addition, the continent has the second largest and youngest population in the world, which positions it as a major world market in the coming years. 
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Sadly, in the post-colonial era, development planning at the macro-economic level has failed to create matching economic opportunities for young populations to boost economic growth. Planning is often influenced by donor needs, commitments and compliance with international goals, at the expense of sustainable exploitation of natural resources.
With the President of the Republic of Uganda (in white shirt)
after a consultative African Union's-APRM meeting at the State House in Entebbe-Uganda (2009)
My previous work with Uganda’s National Planning Authority gave me insight into the complexity of creating National Development Plans.  This process requires integrating local sector plans, bi-lateral and multi-lateral plans of action, and internationally agreed goals such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s Agenda 2063. It takes effort to integrate all these actions, priorities and goals into a single National Development Plan, without losing sight of the salient needs of the predominantly informal economic sector.
Attending the African Union's APRM Summit in Sirte, Libya

Trying to keep up with these rapid changes in plans and programs has, in a way, enticed governments to borrow from international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and from specific developed countries. The inability of many African countries to meet all their budget requirements internally stems from a narrow domestic tax base; high expenditure on public administration; unsatisfactory returns on exports; low foreign direct investment, to increase the tax base; and poor tax administration.

As a result, the capacity of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa to develop self-reliant and self-sustaining economies is constrained by challenges of unsustainable debt, energy crises, and low human capital development, among others.

There have been attempts to improve revenue performance and increase the share of internally generated funds to cover projected expenditures. It is, however, rather difficult to generate revenue from largely informal sectors and small family-owned businesses which do not necessarily embrace corporate governance principles.  

One of the ways some countries have tried to become players in the global economy is by becoming members of different regional economic blocs to improve trade. This has also not worked well for small economies that fail to position themselves well in the economic blocs. These countries need to identify their main resources, exploit them sustainably and position themselves competitively in the regional and global economy.

In my opinion, especially with the newly launched Continental Free Trade Area, development planning will not only need to improve the areas mentioned earlier, but also to include the creation of trade corridors; improve transportation infrastructure; preserve the organic informal ecosystems; and increase access to local markets, to raise incomes, boost economic growth and strategically position the continent for making its mark in the global economy.

For more about Africa, her people and how she connects with the rest of the world, e-mail me at or watch our videos on the youtube channel.

Vivian Birchall

Powering Regional Integration

On July 17, 2019, the President of the Republic of Kenya, His Excellency Uhuru Kenyatta, officially opened the Source 21 High Level Business Summit and International Trade Fair of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). Held at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi under the theme, “Powering Regional Integration,” the summit was also attended by the Presidents of the Republic of Mauritius, the Republic of Zambia and the Republic of Uganda.
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The COMESA Business Council organized the conference in partnership with national export promotion agencies and private sector associations from the 21 COMESA member states, together with the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, to promote manufacturers' competitiveness and value addition for quality industrial output, and advance cross border trade and inter-business linkages among members of COMESA.

Some members of COMESA also participate in the United States’ Africa Growth Opportunity Act, or AGOA. In my previous episodes, I have mentioned US goals for Africa, including the recent extension of the AGOA program to 2025. On the margins of the summit, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni pointed out that Africa is not fully exploiting the opportunities offered by the United States through AGOA, to export over 6500 products free of taxes and quotas.

COMESA member countries were urged to tackle under-production and under-consumption to spur economic transformation through market integration, infrastructure such as roads and electricity, and other economic growth catalysts.

During the Presidential Public-Private Roundtable, the Heads of Government discussed stimuli available to help COMESA set the tone for the Africa Continental Free Trade Area, create opportunities for Africa, and shape the future of COMESA, and emphasized that Africa’s fragmented market must be integrated to encourage increased production and consumption of goods and services.
Leaders were urged to address shortcomings in infrastructure including transportation and electricity, develop human resources, and come up with innovative and practical strategies to promote industrialization and enhance trade in the region.

In my opinion, however, there are two points omitted from this conversation that would significantly contribute toward efforts to power regional integration and economic growth.

The first is that women working in emerging markets find it difficult to get investors and consumers to believe in their products, especially products that are not gender-specific.

It would therefore be ideal to advocate for women’s increased access to financial services at lower costs, and for a change in how corporate entities relate with African markets, and specifically with female entrepreneurs, content creators and technological innovators.

Second is the role of the diaspora in advancing COMESA, the AfCFTA and other regional development initiatives. The African Union has often recognized the African Diaspora as its Sixth Region, and a large source of revenue to the continent of Africa, through remittances and investments.

However, this recognition is often on paper, and there are evident gaps in the African leaders’ direct engagement with the diaspora in terms of planning for the continent and translating the plans into actions.

Africans in the diaspora have created platforms for sharing their common vision for a better Africa, and seek to bridge the gap with African regional bodies through meaningful engagement with representatives from the African Union, such as the African Union Ambassador to the United States, Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao.

Over the years, in my interaction with diaspora groups, academia and university groups, health care professionals, local governments, and foreign governments, technology and innovation has been one of the cross-cutting themes as a catalyst for economic growth and development.

There is an underutilized opportunity to collaborate with the diaspora who have access to resources for innovation that would boost regional investment and commerce. The diaspora can bridge the digital divide through strategic partnerships and collaborations.

It is exciting that the continent of Africa is making significant strides toward regional integration, but I would urge the leaders to tap into the Sixth Region, for a comprehensive approach to the integration.

For more about Africa, the diaspora and the connection to the rest of the world, visit us at or email me at You can also watch our episodes on our youtube channel.

Vivian Kobusingye Birchall

Phytomedicine in Cancer Care and Research - Harvard International Phytomedicines Institute

I am excited to say that Africa is at the forefront of bringing other disadvantaged communities together on a world stage to bridge health care gaps.

Harvard’s Global Health Catalyst program was initiated by Dr. Wilfred Ngwa, to bridge the healthcare gap in low- and middle-income countries around the world, through collaborations with more advanced economies. The GHC seeks to engage in high-level conversations and translate them into policy at national, bi-lateral, regional and international levels. 

During the recent Global Health Catalyst Summit, I had the opportunity to chat with government leaders, diplomats, healthcare professionals and advocates from across the world.  Some were seeking new collaborations to help their communities, including representatives from Pakistan and the Pan African Parliament, and Jamaica’s Minister of Commerce, Trade, Animals and Fisheries.

Over the years of the Global Health Catalyst program, international relations have been built through these partnerships.  Growing global collaborations between people interested in cancer care and research has been an important result of the GHC. The program has attracted educational platforms like eCancer, led to the creation of tumor boards, engaged radiation oncologists, neurosurgeons and many other advocates for global cancer care and treatment.

It is not surprising that I recently heard from a GHC collaborator in Germany whose Rotary club has an exchange program for oncology nurses.  He works with solar-powered technology for radiotherapy automation and digitization, and is seeking to build a network of Rotarians to advocate for the creation of a global program to fight cancer in low- and middle-income countries. 

Modern healthcare professionals have recognized the need for holistic health care approaches that incorporate indigenous and multigenerational knowledge, and the Global Health Catalyst is no exception. This year, one of the significant outcomes of the GHC was the launch of the International Phytomedicines Institute, which Dr. Ngwa will tell us more about.

It is worth noting that plant-based medicine is not a new concept. In Africa and other parts of the world, plant-based medicine has for centuries been used to treat tropical diseases and other medical complications. Modern health care professionals are presently applying science to the herbs that have been used for centuries by indigenous communities around the world.
In recent weeks, I have browsed through different books on plant-based or herbal medicine. It has been interesting to learn about the different plants and where they are believed to originate.  These include flaxseed from Egypt, Artichoke leaf from  Mediterranean Southern Europe and the Canary Islands (Leung and Foster, 1996), Ephedra from south Asia, Chamomile Flower from southern and eastern Europe and northern and western Asia, and Cayenne pepper from tropical America. 

This list is just the tip of the iceberg of the many plants we interact with, often without necessarily recognizing their health benefits. It is interesting to read about the chemistry and pharmacology of these plants. Of course I am not a scientist, but the fact that there is literature explaining the scientific significance of some of these plants takes us back to the conversation on the significance of indigenous medicine in bridging healthcare gaps.

In a previous episode (, I talked about bridging Africa’s healthcare gaps with ethno-medicine. In my opinion, ethnomedicine and phytomedicine are both terms for indigenous plant-based medicine – the words have changed but the concept is the same. This is medicine that indigenous populations have used for centuries to bring relief to those suffering from different ailments. One could call it indigenous biotechnology.  It is used to resolve health issues that cause social and economic impact to the communities.

Dr. Wilfred Ngwa (left) and Vivian Birchall (Right)

Improving plant-based medicine would help bridge the health care gap, and would also be a catalyst for enabling socio-economic development. Agro-based medicines would not only keep the communities healthy, but also provide markets for the farmers of these plants and catalyze preservation of indigenous plants.  

It makes sense for indigenous health care providers, pharmacologists and medical doctors to collaborate on phytomedicines, to provide additional knowledge through extensive research on formulation, dosages and quality control.  It is important to note that these products should also be reviewed for safety and efficacy by health care regulators, like our Food and Drug Administration or its equivalent in other countries.

Vivian K Birchall

Highlights of the Harvard Global Health Catalyst Summit 2019

Dr. Wilfred Ngwa (L)
Cancer is the growth of abnormal cells that damage or interfere with the body’s organs. Cancer treatment may include chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, and is often unaffordable, especially to people in low and middle-income countries. It has major impact on society emotionally, financially, physically and environmentally.

Led by Dr. Wilfred Ngwa, the Global Health Catalyst at Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center and Brigham and Women’s Hospital is dedicated to catalyzing high impact international collaborations and initiatives to eliminate global health disparities, with a main focus on cancer and other non-communicable diseases.

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The GHC hosts an annual summit at Harvard Medical School, with satellite conference in Europe and Africa, and has collaborated with other universities to launch create online educational systems such as Global Oncology University (GO-U) and the Comprehensive Cancer Center in the Cloud (C4) to increase access to world-class cancer care, research and education.

Dr Laurie Glimcher,
President of the Dana–Farber Cancer Institute (R)
With my camera guru- Patrick Snow (L)

This year, the 3-day summit attracted over 400 participants, including medical doctors, global health leaders, advocates, diaspora leaders, sports personalities, and politicians, especially from low and middle income countries, to break down barriers and create sustainable partnerships to impact global health.

Dr. Clare Karekezi
Neurosurgeon- Rwanda Military Hospital
The speakers were from different countries and sectors. They included; Dr Laurie Glimcher - President of the Dana–Farber Cancer Institute, H.E. Dr Brylyne Chitsunge - Pan-African Ambassador for Food Security; Global Health and Phytomedicines chair, Honorable Audley Shaw - Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries, Jamaica, Dr Ahmed Elzawawy - Professor and Chair of the Harvard GHC win-win, Dr Peter  Nyongo' - Governor and former Minister of Health, Kenya, H.E. Carlos dos Santos - Ambassador of Mozambique to the USA,  Michael Fitzgerald - The Boston Globe Magazine, Melvin Foote - President of Constituency for Africa, Dr Eduardo Cazap - Professor, President of SLACOM, Past President of the UICC, Hon. Henry Lowe - Executive Chairman- Environmental Health Foundation | R&D Group of Companies and Flavocure Biotech LLC, Dr Dennis Plamer- Dean, Baptist Institute of Health Sciences. Mbingo Baptist Hospital Cameroon, Raymond Dabney-President and CEO of CBIS, Dr. Beatrice Wiafe-Addai-President-elect, African Organization for Research and Training in Cancer (AORTIC), Chief Executive Officer, Peace and Love Hospitals, Ghana, Calvin Johnson- Legendary former NFL player, Dr. Clare Karekezi- Neurosurgeon Rwanda, Dr Rebecca Buecker- Radiation Oncologist, German, Dr James Alaro- Program Director,National Cancer Institute Center for Global Health, Danny Burke- CEO of eCancer, Dr Johannes Schweizer - Chief Science Officer Arbor Vita Corporation and Mrs. Dorothy Nyong’o- Managing Trustee of Africa Cancer Foundation,  First Lady Kisumu County, Kenya.
Danny Burke
CEO - eCancer

Pakistani delegation

Over the years, as a result of the summit, MOUs have been signed, a comprehensive cancer center in the cloud ("C4") has been created to be accessed by anyone, works published, and healthcare ambassadors galvanized. 

Over the next few weeks, I will share video highlights of the this year’s summit.

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 Interview with Jamaica's Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries
Hon. Audley Shaw

Dr. Lydia Asana
Coordicator GHCS

Keynote Address at the UMass Boston African Scholars Forum's Inaugural Ubuntu Awards

Beyond the image of mud huts and subsistence agriculture, ancient African Kingdoms, before they were overwhelmed by foreign entities, had structures and traditions that supported social, economic and political activities. These indigenous institutions and systems served to protect the interests of the people. Even with migration within and out of the continent, Africa’s image is been influenced by the crosscutting cultural practices that have been carried on by the various ethnic groups.

These practices are often rooted in “Ubuntu,” a foundational value for human interaction in the region, which has historically guided the way of life of the African People in conflict resolution, business negotiations and trade.  It is through Ubuntu – characterized by humanity, community, compassion, and restoration of human relations – that communities have historically managed good relations.

Over the years, communities on the continent have evolved from a somewhat communal way of life to a more capitalistic way of life. This has of course been influenced by the history of colonization, and the new era of globalization.  The continent of Africa, with its wealth of resources, has been a target of international interest for years.

Today, the demand for Africa’s resources and markets has led to a boom in the economic performances of the continent.  Africa is experiencing rapid economic growth through economic reform programs and the growth of mobile technology, remittances, banking, healthcare and energy reform in the region. This should be accompanied with investment in productive enterprise and human capital.

However, the continent is still struggling with inadequate health care, tax bases too small to finance budgets, aid that comes with conditions, and the introduction of invasive species to the natural habitat, such as the water hyacinth, believed to have been brought by Belgians to Lake Victoria as an ornamental plant, that has since impeded fishing and killed off fish stocks.

Another challenge, especially in conflict areas, is that of good governance – a critical requirement for development. The African Union has created innovative initiatives through its New Partnership for Africa’s Development, such as the African Peer Review Mechanism to encourage peer learning, sharing of best practices and identifying crosscutting issues in economic, corporate and political governance and socio-economic development.

I worked with the APRM and other NEPAD programs before moving to the United States, and observed recommendations being integrated into national development plans, but these processes are still developing.  All stakeholders should prioritize good governance, for the success of development initiatives.

The African Union categorizes the global African diaspora as the Sixth Region of the AU, and recognizes the contribution of the diaspora to the continent through remittances, but also the potential of the diaspora to help create what AU Ambassador to the US, Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao, calls “Wakanda Villages,” technologically-advanced communities in different regions of Africa, and to help the continent realize “Agenda 2063 – an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens, representing a dynamic force in the international arena.” Understanding some of the challenges faced by the continent helps us to identify ways we can effectively intervene.

It is also important to understand the history of the diaspora in the United States, our contributions, and the challenges we face. After all, much of the foundational economic contribution to this country that laid the groundwork for the industrial revolution was through forced labor by enslaved Africans.

The earliest members of this segment of the diaspora did not have the luxury to create structures to support their own development, let alone the development of communities in Africa, but their descendants played significant roles in many aspects of American life, producing celebrities in the entertainment and sports industries among others.

Today, African-Americans are increasingly returning to the continent to visit, invest, and contribute, and Africans are coming from the continent to America willingly, whether for educational or economic opportunities or marriage.  But regardless of one’s history and how they got here, members of the African diaspora in the United States often face similar challenges in areas such as income equality, housing, and access to healthcare. We are keenly aware of these challenges in this region, since studies show that Massachusetts is the third most expensive state to live in, with neighboring Rhode Island and Connecticut also in the top 10.

As you probably know, there are many diaspora organizations in the area – perhaps you are already engaged in one specific to a certain country, tribe, profession, religion or interest. To create more significant impacts in community development – both locally, and on the continent of Africa – the diaspora needs larger, more inclusive groups with project-specific cohorts that can collaborate for change.

On that note, I would like to discuss Africans in Boston.

Africans in Boston is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that presents a unique opportunity for anyone of African descent in the New England area to mobilize, share resources, network, and share experiences, using the same platform. I have served on its management team since March of 2018, and will be passing the baton to a new Executive Director at the end of this month.

Living in this region, members of Africans in Boston face costs of living that are high in comparison to incomes.  Our organization works to empower the diaspora in the region to create structures and pool resources, support each other in an economically realistic way, improve the community’s way of life, and eventually play a role in development on the continent as well.  As an example, we have been exploring the creation of a diaspora-originated banking entity in the Boston area.

One key remaining challenge is to attract the different categories of diaspora such as African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, Afro-Latinos and Africans from the continent to come under the same umbrella for large projects that affect us all.

All diaspora, in our respective capacities, share a duty to create a better future for Africa and its people.  What are some roles we can play?
  • Provide positive and forward-looking images of Africa, its people and relations through media platforms, research, and publications.  Yes, we have savannah and safaris, but also entrepreneurs, artistes and intellectuals.
  • Mobilize human and technical capital for capacity building and technology transfer.
  • Support and engage in innovative development activities and initiatives.
  • Establish collegial relationships in order to build consensus, for the sustainability of the projects.
  • Perpetuate traditional practices that empower women, not those that hurt them, and take advantage of available opportunities to fund projects that empower struggling communities.
  • Create investment projects to help push African governments in the direction needed to propel economic progress on the continent
  • Offer Africans and their countries financial alternatives to international financial aid between nations or loans through Bretton Woods institutions
How can the Africa Scholars Forum and scholars and leaders in global governance contribute?
  • Celebrate Africa’s innovation, share success stories and be ambassadors for change
  • Send diaspora students to Africa, and bring students from the continent, for first hand experiences from which they can synthesize innovative recommendations and solutions
  • Form relationships and partner on initiatives with diaspora academics, student groups, innovators and organizations in the Boston area and beyond, as well as those on the continent, to advance shared visions
  • Equip scholars with the knowledge that fosters critical thinking and analysis to contribute significantly to academic research on Africa, and shape current and future policy in the right direction.
  • To the women, productively “interrupt” male-dominated processes.
I would like to end by urging us all to think critically about the continent of Africa and its people in the context of the past, the present, and the future; to come up with a great vision for the continent, make realistic and attainable development projections, inspire and motivate each other toward realizing this vision, be willing to collaborate, and guide all research and projects towards increasing human capital, marketability, accountability, access to energy, trade and holistic investment strategies that favor Africans in the diaspora and at home. Most importantly, let us continue to be guided by the principle of “Ubuntu.”

Vivian Kobusingye Birchall