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, usingthe 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

U.S Policy in Southern Africa

Today, Wednesday 5/22/2019, at the invitation of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs,in partnership withthe Bureau of Public Affairs,I participated in the Bureau’s stakeholder discussion conference call on U.S. Policy in Southern Africa.

The call, which is part of the Department’s domestic engagement with its stakeholders, was hosted by an experienced career foreign service officer, who provided a readout on current diplomatic relations with countries in Southern Africa; relief efforts towards victims of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique; and ways the United States government works with its partners to spur mutually beneficial trade and investment, strengthen security capacity, promote good governance, and engage youth through the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) and Mandela Fellow programs.

The host highlighted some of the key US goals for Africa, including the extension of the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) program to 2025; the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact which offers grants rather than loans; and the upcoming US-Africa Business Summit 2019, June 18-21 in Maputo, Mozambique.

SADC member states
Image: SADC
During the question and answer session, participants discussed the representation of the U.S government in Africa’s regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC), high-level visits to Africa, and the significance of African YALI and Mandela Fellows alumni.

Vivian Birchall

Harvard Global Health Catalyst Summit - Catalyzing high impact international collaborations

Last month on Africa2U, I hosted Dr. Lydia Asana, Coordinator of the Harvard Global Health Catalyst Summit, and Dr. Bashkim Ziberi, a member of the 2019 Summit’s Abstract Committee from the Department of Radiation Oncology at Harvard Medical School, to chat about the different ways low to medium income countries can benefit from collaboration and partnership in the health sector through Harvard Medical School’s Global Health Catalyst.

Watch episode

The Global Health Catalyst program is funded by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of Harvard Medical School, and a growing number of funding agencies and industry partners with goal to catalyze high impact international collaborations to eliminate global health disparities, primarily focusing on cancer and related diseases.

Dr. Ziberi and Dr. Asana highlighted some of the low-cost technologies that increase access to care, and approaches for global health that have been developed through this initiative, including “tiny drone” cancer therapy using nanotechnology that targets the tumor sites without having side effects. Dr. Wilfred Ngwa, a medical physicist and member of the African diaspora, developed this technology. The catalyst program also encourages local knowledge through the cloud system and tumor boards which doctors in participating  countries that do not have resources to interpret results.

They described the process through which the abstract committee receives and selects abstracts from around the world, including summit participants; collaboration between GHCS, Cures Within Reach and foreign governments; the diaspora’s role in paving the way for African receptiveness to health programs; and benefits of collaborations in healthcare for communities in Africa.

Dr. Asana noted that at this year’s summit, top diaspora organizations will compete for the Harvard GHC Diaspora Impact Award, and attendees will have opportunities to enhance their skills by participating in leadership training. The nomination form and more information are available at:

U.S. Policy in West Africa

On Wednesday 3/27/2019, at the invitation of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, in partnership with the Bureau of Public Affairs, I participated in the Bureau’s stakeholder conference call discussion on U.S. Policy in West Africa.

The call was hosted by an experienced career foreign service officer, who provided a readout on current issues and developments in West Africa and on ways the United States government can work with its partners to counter violent extremism, advance peace and security, promote good governance, and spur mutually beneficial trade and investment. 

The host highlighted some of the key US goals for Africa, including making private capital available for investment and ongoing programs, such as: the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA); Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC); BUILD Act; and YALI. 

Map of Africa with country flags
Photo: Wiki commons
During the question and answer session, participants chatted about how to engage the diaspora in implementing US policies in Africa, factors that have contributed to the rapid economic growth of Africa including economic reform programs and the growth of mobile technology, remittances, increasing exports to Africa and the energy reform in the Niger delta region.

Vivian Kobusingye Birchall

Outer Space with Astrophysicist Prof. Datuk Mazlan Othman

Vivian Kobusingye
Birchall walking toward
one of the submillimeter array Antennas

The eight radio telescopes of the Smithsonian Submillimeter Array
Photo: Reno
Historically, people have studied space, using the cycles of the moon for religious and agricultural purposes, and the positions of the stars and constellations for navigation.  In the last century, these interests led to space exploration.
Replica of Sputnik
Photo: NASA

The Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into orbit on October 4, 1957.  The first American satellite, Explorer 1, followed on January 31, 1958. The first human to orbit Earth was Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union, on April 12, 1961.  John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth on February 20, 1962, and on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon.  In the years since, thousands more satellites representing over 80 countries, and citizens of 37 countries, have been launched into space.

Africa’s first spaceport, the San Marco Equatorial Range, opened in 1964 near Malindi, Kenya, as a partnership between NASA and the University of Rome.  In 1970, the first satellite specifically for X-ray astronomy, Uhuru, was launched from Kenya. 
San Marco Equatorial Range- Malindi, Kenya
Photo: Wiki commons

The site no longer launches satellites, but still tracks them. African countries from Morocco and Algeria to Ghana, Kenya and Mauritius now use satellites for scientific research, environmental and land-use monitoring, radio and television broadcasts, and internet.

Today, we live in a world where space technology is used in our day to day lives, and almost taken for granted. Our aircraft, ships, cars and even smartphones know where they are at all times.  We have constant views of Earth’s weather and storms. And live television or radio broadcasts from anywhere in the world can be received worldwide, even by people who live “off the grid.”

Prof. Datuk Mazlan Othman

At the International level, the United Nations has an office for Outer Space Affairs which implements the decisions of the United Nations General Assembly and of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and maintains a database of satellites registered by the nations which launch them.

In observance of International Women’s day, my guest, via Skype is Professor Mazlan Othman, former Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. Prior to taking that office, she was the founding Director General for Malaysia’s National Space Agency, Angkasa. She is currently the  Director International Science Council- Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Watch Episode:

Professor Othman was the first woman to earn a physics Ph.D. from the University of Otago in New Zealand, and the first physics Ph.D. in Malaysia.  Working in a field that was previously dominated by men, she led the way for more women to follow.

We chatted about her experience working in the space industry for the past 29 years; people’s misconception that space is secretive and elitist; the positives and negatives for society, from the use of space; thoughts on establishment of a Space Force and the United Nations guidelines for the increased use of space

Vivian Kobusingye Birchall with Japanese
Astronaut Koichi Wakata 

Harvard Medical School- Global Health Catalyst Summit 2019

In May 2019, Harvard Medical School will be hosting its annual Global Health Catalyst Summit. This summit is a unique event designed to catalyze high international collaborations to eliminate global health disparities and curb the growing burden of non-communicable diseases.

Last year, I participated as a presenter at this Summit, on the “Wakanda” panel. My presentation was about bridging Africa’s Healthcare gap with ethno medicine, as a sustainable way to disrupt the health care disparities that communities in Africa face. Read more

On Thursday January 31, 2019, I hosted Oscar Nebangwa, Diaspora Outreach Coordinator- Harvard Global Health Catalyst Summit on Africa2U.

Watch  episode

We talked about the Global Health Catalyst Summit - its purpose and desired outcomes, the African Renaissance Ambassador Corp, and his experience working with processes and programs designed to create catalytic development in Africa and the United States.

MIT Africa Innovate Conference- Made in Africa

Youssef Aroub- MIT and Vivian Birchall- Africa2U

Africa is not labeled as an innovation hub, but it is home to some of the most significant inventions. A large number of inventions are developed to meet the needs of local communities, in predominantly poor economies.

Case in point, Malaria.  It is estimated that malaria costs the African economy almost 1.5% of its GDP. Last year, a non-invasive malaria test called Matibabu, developed by Ugandan university students, won the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. The invention is being tested in partnership with a national hospital, and is expected to give results in one minute, with no need to draw blood. 
However, the continent has also produced some high-tech inventions to address global issues in the healthcare, banking, navigation, space, energy and artificial intelligence fields.

The Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) recognizes African potential and for eight years, the MIT Africa Club has hosted an Africa Innovate Conference.  As part of Africans in Boston, I attended last year’s conference, on the theme “Digitization of Africa,” which attracted a cross section of participants including MIT Alumni, business leaders and advisors from Africa and the United States, politicians, and members of the diaspora.
Youssef Aroub

This year, the club will host the 9th annual MIT Africa Innovate Conference on April 14, 2019 at the Samberg Conference Center. The conference theme is “Made in Africa.”  

On Friday February 22, 2019, I hosted Youssef Aroub, Chair, MIT Africa Innovate Conference, on Africa2u, to talk about the MIT Africa Innovate Conference (Origin/background, goals, objectives), significant innovations from Africa, the innovation patterns in Africa, and what Africa needs to get ahead in innovation and technological advancement.
 Watch episode

The conference creates an opportunity for participants to learn and share best practices and strategies required to accelerate the scaling of impactful enterprises and innovations on the continent across sectors and create partnerships and collaborations.

Perspective on the History of South-South Cooperation and Migration in Africa

In this article, I provide perspective on the history of South-South cooperation in Africa and how it has influenced south-south migration.

- Approximately 215 million migrants live outside their home countries.
- 80% of African migrants live within the region.
- Uganda has the largest number of refugees in Africa.

The history of migration and cooperation within the global south dates back to the beginning of mankind, and the global south, specifically Africa, has always been an important player in the international arena, though very rarely recognized as such.

In November, 2018, I traveled to United Nations headquarters in New York, to participate as a presenter and panelist at a side event to the Global South-South Development Expo.  Convened by the International Organization for Migration, this event, like others at the Expo, contributed to the preparatory process for the Second High-level United Nations Conference on South-South Cooperation, which will be held this March in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

More immediately, the dialogue presented information to UN Member States and other stakeholders considering the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, and offered them an opportunity to discuss the benefits of South-South and triangular cooperation in promoting better migration governance.  The Global Compact has since been adopted at a conference in Marrakech on December 10, and endorsed by the UN General Assembly on December 18, 2018.

It is worth recognizing, however, that South-South migration and cooperation pre-date modern diplomatic institutions.

In one of the previous episodes, I pointed out that migration has been a consistent part of human civilization. History reveals that mankind originated in Africa and through migration, spread to the other parts of the world. According to genetic evidence and the most recent fossil discoveries, groups of modern humans first moved across the Sinai Peninsula about 180,000 years ago. Innovative talent carried our species into every exploitable niche. We were living in the eastern Mediterranean region by 90,000 years ago and reached Asia and Australia by 40,000 years ago and Europe by 30,000 years ago.

During ice ages, sea levels were as much as 425 feet lower than they are today, so there were land bridges connecting many of today’s islands and continents. Humans walked across what is now the Bering Strait from Russia to Alaska by 15,000 years ago, and reached the southern tip of South America by 12,000 years ago.  Polynesian voyagers even colonized New Zealand at least 700 years ago.

Historically, there have been different social, economic, and political reasons for migration.

These migration trends led to cities emerging, markets, trade routes and most importantly established trade relations and diplomacy.

In Africa, as a product of these trade practices, many of the indigenous people of the Maghreb and the Sahara before the Arab/Muslim conquest, - the Berber, adopted whichever language was spoken by their conquerors or trade partners. Due to the transportation barrier caused by the Sahara Desert, they interacted more with the European and Arab traders who used the Mediterranean Sea as their trade routes, and picked up their culture.

This scenario is similar to the settlement and integration of refugees in Uganda.  I earlier mentioned that Uganda hosts the most refugees in Africa and many of these refugees have picked up local identities and practices.

However, there were also the trans-Saharan trade routes, and the Nile Valley migratory routes that led various groups of people from across the Sahara into Sub-Saharan Africa, and they settled there. As a result of the trans-Saharan trade, Berber merchants and nomads incorporated the lands of the Sudan and other lands in the sub-Saharan region into the Islamic world and culture. 

The Zulu are part of the Bantu ethnic group
There was also the great African Migration of the Bantu from West Africa, all the way to the south,  and how the Bantu interacted with
the nilotics, nilo-hamites, and other ethnic groups.

These routes would be equivalent to modern day migratory corridors.
Most recently, with digitization and quick access to information, people have learnt in real time the facts and challenges that come with migration to the north and more are choosing to stay closer to their home countries. Major cities in Africa are becoming migration hot spots.

As the IOM points out, countries in the global South are increasingly generating their own best practices and knowledge to address sustainable development challenges. This is critical to a successful south-south cooperation that would have to tap into indigenous/local solutions to challenges, especially since there are less formal migration policies in the south, specifically Africa.

It goes without saying that there are financial challenges to migrant hosts.

Indeed, countries in the global south need to work together to strengthen south- south cooperation on national, bilateral and multi-lateral levels. 

My recommendation is that Africa, as part of the global south, be more practical in its strategies by revisiting the things that Africa is naturally gifted with, such as its friendly people, flora, fauna and minerals, and leverage that in promoting south-south cooperation, without having to borrow a lot of money from the north, and get tied into debt.

Here are some of the things the continent can do.

1. Celebrate Africa’s innovation and share success stories
2. Specify benefits of migration to increase political will for mart migration policies 
3. Boosting tourism within the south and targeting visitors within the south. Give the people in the 
        south reason to invest in activities that appreciate nature in the south, in this case, Africa. That 
        would generate additional revenue for the countries

4. Putting in place an ecosystem for the youth to thrive

5. We also know for a fact that the diaspora is positioned to play a critical role in providing 
       solutions for south- south cooperation and migration. In a previous episode, I also mentioned that 
       reports indicate that immigrants from the continent of Africa to the United States are highly
       educated and contribute significantly to academic research, though many are under-employed.  
      These immigrants can easily be engaged for consultation, strategic planning and networking

Vivian Kobusingye Birchall