TIME Africa

How to Buy an Ethical Diamond

The diamond industry is still tainted by conflict, but it's possible to buy a jewel that helps people—instead of hurting them

As I write in the cover story in this week’s TIME International, blood diamonds still exist, and the industry as a whole is still beset by problems over conflict, smuggling and child labor. Even worse, because the existing Kimberley Process certification system has so many loopholes, it can be almost impossible to be sure that your diamond isn’t tainted. But if you’re in the market for an engagement or wedding ring, there are ways to ensure that your money is more likely to help miners on the ground in countries like the Congo than it is to hurt them. Here is a checklist to make sure your lifetime investment doesn’t mean a lifetime of poverty and suffering for someone else:

Ask your jeweler where the diamonds were mined. A responsible jeweler will know every step in the path from mine to market. If he doesn’t, move on.

Demand details. Don’t settle for vague assurances about reputable suppliers or Kimberly Process certification—the KP does not ban diamonds that fund war crimes and human rights abuses by government forces. Nor does it address unfair labor practices or environmental degradation brought about by irresponsible diamond mining.

Avoid diamonds that come from countries like Zimbabwe and Angolab, where human rights abuses in and around mines have been well documented by organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Look for diamonds mined in Canada. They may be more expensive, but labor and environmental standards are rigorously enforced. That said, buying Canadian diamonds doesn’t help African countries improve their industries. Consider donating to organizations like Diamond Development Initiative International, a group that’s working to support small-scale diamond operations around the world.

In Africa, Namibia and Botswana are another good bet. Those countries work with small-scale miners as well as large-scale industry to make sure that income from mining creates jobs and leads to development. Both countries enforce strict labor and environmental standards. Sierra Leone is going in that direction, though the recent Ebola outbreak has temporarily set progress back.

Recycle. Look for vintage or antique rings. A good jeweler can reset, or even recut, an old stone to make a modern ring. They may have had bloody beginnings, but at least its over.

Don’t stop with the diamonds. Check the origin of your gold as well. Gold mining leaves toxic wastes like mercury and cyanide which are very damaging for the environment and the people who mine it. Opt for recycled gold, or Fair trade gold.

TIME portfolio

Inside the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Diamond Mines

Photographer Lynsey Addario was on assignment for TIME in the DRC

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, almost all diamond mining is done by hand.

It’s a labor-intensive process that requires hauling away layers of dirt and rock, sometimes 50 feet deep, to expose ancient beds of gravel where the crystals are found. Miners then wash and sift that gravel one shovelful at a time in search of tiny glints of light that might be a diamond. If they are lucky, a peppercorn-size crystal could fetch them a few dollars, once the mine owner gets his take. In New York’s diamond district such a gem, cut and polished, would be worth several hundred dollars. Lynsey Addario and I journeyed to the heart of Congo’s diamond mining district in August to report on an $81.4 billion industry that links the miners of Tshikapa with the glittering salesrooms of the world’s jewelry retailers.

It was an arduous trip, one that required an internal flight on an airline that has been blacklisted by the European Union for its shaky safety record, followed by long 4×4 drives on red dirt tracks down to the mining sites. Sometimes we had to take motorbikes, or boats, to reach the mines. Some of the richest gravel beds can be found at the bottom of the rivers that snake through the region. There, miners siphon gravel from deep under water using pumps mounted on rickety pontoons.

In January, the provincial government banned child labor in Tshikapa’s diamond mines, but with few other options for income, along with a lack of schools, many children, like 15-year-old Mbuyi Mwanza, have no choice but to work in the mines. Mwanza wants to grow up to be a nurse, but for the moment he is more concerned about feeding his family. His father, who is blind, cannot work. Stories like this abound in the region, but one organization is hoping to make a difference. The Diamond Development Initiative (DDI), along with diamond jewelry retailer Brilliant Earth, has set up a pilot program for young students at risk of sacrificing their education to work in the mines. Right now there are only two Brilliant Mobile Schools, as they are called, in Tshikapa, and demand is high. DDI hopes to build more, if they can raise more funds. In the meantime the children of Lungudi village look on with envy as the Brilliant students, dressed in school uniforms, take classes in science, French, history and math in the tented classroom.

IMG_8136[1]
TIME’s Africa Bureau Chief Aryn Baker and photographer Lynsey Addario on assignment for TIME in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Tshikapa, population 600,000, betrays nothing of the wealth that lies beneath the ground. None of the roads are paved, not even the airport runway. The local hospital often turns patients away because it can’t afford to treat them for free, and they can’t afford to pay. According to the mayor, at least half the population has abandoned agriculture in favor of mining, leaving fields fallow and keeping the cost of basic food items high. Hundreds of miners die every year in drowning accidents and tunnel collapses that are seldom reported, because they happen so often. In the mining village of Kamabue, the local pastor tells the story of how a few years ago more than 60 miners searching an underwater grotto for diamonds in the nearby river were killed when the walls collapsed. He often urges his congregation to stay away from mining, but what is the point, he asks. There are few alternatives.

Sixty-one-year-old Daniel Tunuanga got his lucky break as a miner 40 years ago, when he and his partner found a 4.6 carat diamond. They never returned to the mines. Instead, they sold the stone and opened up their own diamond buying business. It’s not a lucrative job, says Tunuanga, but it’s still better than digging.

Lynsey Addario, a frequent TIME contributor, is a photographer represented by Getty Images Reportage.

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s International Photo Editor.

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Africa Bureau Chief. Follow her on Twitter @arynebaker.

TIME African Union

Africa Can’t Let Old Traditions Stand in the Way of Progress, Warns Obama

President Obama was welcomed by the African Union's chairwoman as "one of their own"

United States President Barack Obama wrapped up his four-day visit to Africa on Tuesday July 28 with a rousing address to the African Union, at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Calling for the empowerment of African youth and women, for an end to the “cancer of corruption” and greater economic ties between Africa and America, Obama told the 54-nation body that “It is long past time to put aside old stereotypes of an Africa forever mired in poverty and conflict.”

The African Union was established in 2001 to achieve greater unity between African countries and a better life for African people. Over the past decade it has gained strength and respect in the international arena as it wields its political and military tools to solve thorny African problems, from civil conflict to terrorism and obstacles to trade. By becoming the first U.S. leader to address the A.U., Obama ensured that his praise, his exhortations to do better and his promise of partnership reached every corner of the continent, on what is likely to be his last visit to the region as President.

Welcomed by the African Union’s first chairwoman, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who introduced him as the President of the United States of America, the first to address the A.U., and “one of our own,” Obama took the podium to sustained applause, cheers and whistles. In a wide-ranging speech that touched on his African roots, Obama celebrated the continent’s gains, noting that Africa has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with a middle class projected to grow to more than one billion consumers. “With hundreds of millions of mobile phones and surging access to the internet, Africans have the potential to leapfrog old technologies into new prosperity,” he said. But to continue on that trajectory, Obama warned, Africa “can’t let old traditions stand in the way.”

He called on African governments to maintain economic gains by improving democracy, protecting human rights and ensuring freedom of the press, singling out his host, the Ethiopian government, in particular for its crackdown on journalists and opposition leaders. “Democracy is not just formal elections,” Obama said to resounding applause. “When journalists are put behind bars for doing their jobs, or activists are threatened as governments crack down on civil society, then you may have democracy in name, but not in substance.”

He also encouraged African leaders to respect term limits, to act more like Nelson Mandela, who stood down after his second term as President of South Africa, and not like Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, who was just elected to a constitutionally illegal third term as President amidst widespread violence. “I have to be honest with you,” Obama said in comments that appeared to go off script. “I just don’t understand this. I actually think I am a pretty good president. I think if I ran again, I could win. But I can’t. The law is the law and no one is above it, not even presidents.” Even as representatives of the dozen African countries who have some of the longest-serving leaders in the world shifted uncomfortably in their seats, the audience erupted into the wildest cheers and loudest applause of the speech.

Obama had come to Africa to meet with Kenyan and Ethiopian leaders on issues ranging from security, economic development and human rights. His speech at the A.U reflected similar themes as he attempts to cement his African legacy. He has hinted, however, that he might consider returning to Africa at the conclusion of his presidency, telling the audience, “I’m looking forward to life after being President. It means I can go take a walk, I can spend time with my family, I can find other ways to serve. I can visit Africa more often.”

The biggest challenges, however, remain unresolved and out of his reach, the damper on an otherwise successful visit. Large swaths of Africa remain in turmoil, with terror groups al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria continuing to take lives and disrupt progress. The ongoing civil war in South Sudan, which has seen tens of thousands killed, raped or tortured and has displaced millions, defies any attempts at resolution. “In South Sudan the joy of independence has descended into the despair of violence,” Obama lamented. On Monday he met with regional leaders in an attempt to force rival South Sudanese leaders Salva Kiir and Riek Machar to accept a peace agreement. If they do not, Obama warned, “I believe the international community must raise the costs of their intransigence,” a threat that most likely means an international arms embargo and increased sanctions.

Even on issues of human rights, Obama was met with some resistance from leaders in both Ethiopia and Kenya. When Obama publically called for an end to anti-gay discrimination in Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta noted that while the two countries share many values, gay rights were not among them. And in Ethiopia, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn demurred on Obama’s calls for greater press freedoms by accusing journalists of acting unethically and consorting with terrorists.

Critics have complained that while Obama’s visit was full of pomp and lectures, he has delivered little in the way of the expected monetary largesse. That may be the most successful part of his visit yet. “So many Africans have told me — we don’t just want aid, we want trade that fuels our progress,” he said in his speech. They say, “’We don’t want patrons, we want partners who help us build our own capacity to grow.’” Throughout the past four days, Obama has been relentless in his calls for greater democracy, accountable governance, and rule of law, the foundations of economic growth that will do far more to deliver on Africa’s promise than any amount of aid.

 

TIME ethiopia

Obama Arrives in Ethiopia, a Favored Ally In Spite of Human Rights Abuses

Ethiopia’s powerful military has been a vital bulwark against the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab

A massive car bomb ripped through the façade of a major international hotel in Mogadishu on Sunday, killing 13 in a tragic reminder of why, exactly, President Barack Obama is visiting Somalia’s autocratic neighbor Ethiopia — this despite having said, upon his first presidential visit to the continent in 2009, that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

Ethiopia’s powerful military has been a vital bulwark against the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab insurgent group in Somalia, which was responsible for Sunday’s bombing in Mogadishu. But the American need for security support in an unstable East Africa comes at a cost. Despite a history of jailing journalists and holding elections widely derided as a sham — the most recent parliamentary election, in May, resulted in 100% of the seats going to the governing party — Ethiopia can now claim the de facto stamp of approval that comes with an American Presidential visit.

On the morning of July 27, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn welcomed Obama into Addis Ababa’s National Palace with the pomp and glory of an ancient empire that, unlike much of Africa, was not colonized by a European power until 1936. A large brass band, decked out in the red and green of the Ethiopian flag, played The Star-Spangled Banner and the Ethiopian national anthem as Obama and Desalegn stood at attention. Stone lions stood atop the palace portico; real ones roamed the palace’s back garden, reminders of Ethiopia’s former emperor, Haile Selassie, who took the lion as his symbol. (Obama later visited the palace lions, and joked, in a press conference, that he was “considering getting some for the White House.”) As cannons fired off a 21-gun salute, Obama inspected troops from the Ethiopian national guard in a bit of state visit formality that appeared to bore him. Then he and Desalegn entered the palace for several hours of closed-door discussions on regional security, economic development and human rights.

For many Westerners, Ethiopia still conjures up images of starvation and desperate poverty, a product of a horrific famine during the 1980s. But today Ethiopia is the second most populous state in Africa, with some 90 million people, and it has become a regional military and economic powerhouse, averaging ten percent growth over the past decade. It is home to the African Union — another reason for Obama’s visit — and is about halfway through building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which, when completed in 2017, will be the largest hydroelectric power project in Africa.

But that success on the African stage has come at a cost to civil liberties and democratic ideals. Described by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the second largest African jailer of journalists, after Eritrea, the government has detained at least nine reporters and bloggers critical of the ruling party; five were released in the weeks leading up to Obama’s visit. Prime Minister Desalegn justified the detentions in a press conference after the talks by insinuating that the journalists were unethical and aligned with terrorist groups. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have lambasted the Ethiopian government for its abysmal record on human rights, noting that members of the political opposition are regularly accused and detained on charges of terrorism. Obama, in the same press conference, said that U.S. intelligence had seen no indication that the opposition groups of most concern to the government posed a terrorist threat. “If they tip into activities that are violent and are undermining a constitutional government, then we have a concern,” he said. A vocal opposition, he added, should be seen not as a threat, but as an essential part of any functioning democracy.

But Ethiopia, bordered by the violent and faltering states Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia, is also a bastion of security in a region roiled by war. It has, in the past, hosted a secretive American drone base, but it is unclear whether the U.S. is currently conducting drone operations from the area. Ethiopia is second only to Bangladesh as the largest contributor of peacekeeping troops to the United Nations, one of the largest contributors of troops to the African Union, and has one of the strongest militaries on the continent. As such, it is a country that cannot be easily dismissed — even with its spotty record on human rights.

Pressed on whether Obama’s visit to Ethiopia was consistent with American ideals of democratic freedoms and human rights, Rhodes told journalists that despite the differences between the two countries, it was more important to remain engaged. “We have a broad set of interests with the Ethiopian government that includes a commitment to raise these issues, because ultimately we believe that democracies are going to be more successful if you’re looking at promoting economic growth, economic dynamism, in combating security threats.” He went on to compare the Ethiopia visit to other presidential trips to China. “The fact of the matter is, if we only went to countries around the world who agreed with us about everything, we’d have a very short travel itinerary.”

Later in the day Obama will convene a meeting with regional leaders about the devastating civil war in South Sudan. He will be joined by Desalegn, the presidents of Kenya and Uganda, the chairwoman of the African Union and the south Sudanese foreign minister. Despite the high-powered attendees, one senior Obama administration official admitted to journalists, speaking on background per White House protocol, traveling with Obama that a positive outcome on South Sudan was unlikely. “I don’t think anybody should have high expectations that this is going to yield a breakthrough. The parties have shown themselves to be utterly indifferent to their country and their people, and that is a hard thing to rectify.”

Obama, speaking to the press, lamented that “The conditions on the ground are getting much, much worse.” And that “we don’t have a lot of time to wait.” Fighting in South Sudan has meant that farmers have not been able to plant vital crops for two seasons in a row, and the country is on the verge of famine – one caused not by drought, but by war. In order to solve the South Sudan crisis, Obama needs the help of Ethiopia, along with many other African nations with questionable human rights records. It’s not that human rights are being held hostage to security needs, Obama argues, so much that visiting a country like Ethiopia gives him the opportunity to help solve a thorny regional problem while pushing for democratic progress on the sidelines. Which works first may yet define the success of his trip.

TIME Kenya

Obama Electrifies Kenyan Youth With a Speech From the Heart

Obama offered a prescription for the country's future, one that puts and end to corruption and to traditions that are holding the country back

Despite longstanding family ties to Kenya, U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Nairobi—the first by a serving U.S. President—has been largely an official affair, defined by bilateral meetings and entrepreneurship conferences.

That all changed on Sunday, when he addressed Kenyan youth at a sports stadium and spoke from the heart. As his convoy turned into Nairobi’s SafariCom Arena, he finally received the exuberant welcome that security precautions had all but denied him since his arrival two nights prior.

Crowds of men, women and children, some waving flags and banners welcoming him back to his father’s homeland, thronged the highway. Inside the arena, some 4,500 students, government officials and civil society leaders jumped to their feet as Obama’s half sister, Auma Obama, introduced a man who really had no need for introduction. By the time Obama took the podium, the crowd was ecstatic. “I love you!” shouted a member of the audience. “I love you too,” Obama said to the crowd.

Part state address, part commencement speech, Obama’s 40-minute talk started with a personal reminiscence of his first trip to Kenya in 1998, when he was a young law student seeking to learn more about his roots.

On that trip, he said, the airline lost his bags. “That doesn’t happen on Air Force One,” he joked.

He spoke of Kenya’s turbulent history, and of his grandfather’s job as a domestic servant for a colonial family, who, even as a grown man, was called “boy.” He referenced his father’s disappointment upon returning to Kenya after an education in the United States “in part because he couldn’t reconcile the ideas that he had for his young country with the hard realities that had confronted him. ” Those stories “show the enormous barriers that so many Kenyans faced just one or two generations ago.”

Kenya had changed, Obama noted. “A young, ambitious Kenyan today should not have to do what my grandfather did, and serve a foreign master. You don’t need to do what my father did, and leave your home in order to get a good education and access to opportunity. Because of Kenya’s progress, because of your potential, you can build your future right here, right now,” he said, to an explosion of applause.

But it is still up to Kenyans to make sure that the trajectory of history continues to moved towards progress and opportunity, so that this new generation would not be disappointed like his father’s. Kenya, Obama said, “is at a crossroads, a moment filled with peril, but also enormous promise.”

To achieve that promise, Obama offered some hard-hitting prescriptions. Outdated traditions, the oppression of women, child marriages, ethnic tensions and the “cancer of corruption” must be done away with, he said. Ending corruption doesn’t start and end with tough laws, he added. “It requires a commitment by the entire nation—leaders and citizens—to change habits and to change culture.

To the surprise and delight of many in the audience, Obama spent several minutes speaking on women’s equality, girls’ right to an education, and even female genital mutilation, which is still practiced in some parts of Kenya. “Treating women and girls as second-class citizens, those are bad traditions,” he said. “They need to change. They’re holding you back.”

To drive home his point, he repeated himself. “These traditions may date back centuries; they have no place in the 21st century.”

Sandra Chebet, a 16-year-old student in the red and green trimmed blazer of Nairobi’s Maryhill Girls High School, said Obama’s stance on tradition was her favorite part. “For a long time people have said that women could not be successful in business and in government because of their traditional roles. Now I know that even though I am a girl, I can also be the best pediatrician. Actually, I knew that already, but after Obama’s speech, now everyone in Kenya knows that too.”

Obama also emphasized a need for inclusivity, referencing some of the government’s ham-fisted attempts to curb terrorism by isolating and alienating minority Muslim groups in Kenya.

The Somali terror group al Shabaab, which has killed hundreds of Kenyans in terror attacks over the past several years, is a real threat, said Obama. But “it is important to remember that violent extremists want us to turn against one another… Extremists who prey on distrust must be defeated by communities who stand together and stand for something different.”

He cited the American experience with its own Muslim minority, saying “those minorities make enormous contributions to our countries. These are our brothers; they are our sisters. And so in both our countries, we have to reject calls that allow us to be divided.”

Fifteen year-old Hamdi Ibrahim, draped in a white headcovering that went down to her waist, was delighted. “To see him standing and defending Muslims makes me feel empowered, and makes me feel that I have a support system.”

Upon departing the stage at the conclusion of his speech, Obama was thronged with fans waving camera phones and seeking selfies with the president.

Twenty-one year old medical student James Mugo managed to shake Obama’s hand, something he says he will remember for the rest of his life. “He held my hand for, like, five seconds. It was electrifying.”

Mugo, like many Africans, is no stranger to well-meaning lectures from Western leaders who say they know what Africa needs to progress. But this time it was different. “We heard some hard truths about Kenya’s problems, but it was not with chastisement or from a position of superiority,” says Mugo. “The fact that this time the advice was coming from someone who knows Kenya, who is of Kenya, that means it will have a much stronger impact.”

He has no doubt that Kenyan youth will take the messages to heart. “Obama’s speech has given us all great encouragement to be better as a nation,” he said, before melting back into a crowd of young Kenyans already starting to compare their selfies with the American president.

Read next: Watch Obama Steal the Show by Dancing the Lipala During His Visit to Kenya

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TIME Kenya

Obama Defends Gay Rights on Kenya Trip

The African country sentences homosexuals to prison time

There is perhaps no wider chasm between the United States and Africa than over the issue of gay rights. The tension was thrown into sharp relief during U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Kenya, the first visit of a serving U.S. President to this East African Nation. In a joint press conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Saturday, following what appeared to have been a warm and productive meeting behind closed doors, Obama made it clear that the issue of gay rights in Kenya remained unresolved.

“I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law, and that they are deserving of equal protection under the law and that the state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation,” Obama said. “I’m unequivocal on this.”

Kenyatta’s government has staunchly defended laws imposing up to 14 years in prison for homosexuality. Kenya and the United States, he said, shared many values, from a love for democracy, entrepreneurship and families.

Gay rights were not one of those values.

“There are some things that we must admit we don’t share—our culture, our societies don’t accept. It is very difficult for us to be able to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept.”

As I wrote in a recent cover story on gay rights in Uganda, this issue has resonance across the continent.

By and large, Africa as a whole is far behind the United States and Europe in regards to acceptance of homosexuality. Legislated homophobia is on the rise across the continent, even as LGBT people have made historic gains elsewhere in the world. According to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, a large majority of North Americans, Latin Americans and residents of the European Union now accept homosexuality. Same-sex marriages are legal in 20 countries, including the United States. But in Africa, where the vast majority of people—98% in Nigeria, 90% in Kenya and 96% in Uganda, Senegal and Ghana, according to the Pew poll—say homosexuality is unacceptable, many religious leaders have watched that progress with alarm. Conservative politicians have also sought to protect their nations from what they see as a Western import by drafting anti-gay legislation even more draconian than the colonial-era sodomy laws that remain on the books in many African countries.

“Over the last five years, we have seen more laws being proposed and being passed into law in Africa,” says Laura Carter, Amnesty International’s adviser on sexual orientation and gender identity. “Even in places where the laws have not changed, enforcement has increased.” Thirty-four of 54 African nations currently criminalize homosexuality. According to Amnesty, South Sudan, Burundi, Liberia and Nigeria have implemented increasingly punitive penalties for people who engage in homosexual acts. Gambia now calls for life in prison. Mauritania, Sudan and parts of both Somalia and Nigeria permit courts to impose the death penalty in certain cases for individuals found guilty of same-sex activity.

The Pew survey also describes how intolerance for homosexuality tends to be more intense in communities where there are high levels of religious observance, and African nations stand out as some of the most observant in the world. Religious conservatives, Christian and Muslim alike, may be losing ground with the public on LGBT rights in the West, but in Africa, where church and mosque remain the cornerstones of society and politics, anti-­homosexual campaigners are determined to hold ground. Ty Cobb, global director for the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT-rights advocacy group, says the growing backlash against homosexuality in Africa over the past several years is a proxy war in the cultural conflict that is being lost by the evangelical Christian movement in the U.S. and beyond.

Kenyatta argued that Kenya had other priorities, listing heath, education and road development, along with greater representation of women in society. “This is why I repeatedly say that, for Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue,” he said. “Maybe once, like you have overcome some of these challenges, we can begin to look at new ones.”

But when it comes to human rights, Obama made clear, it’s not so much a matter of priorities, but a matter of what is right. Drawing a comparison between anti-gay discrimination and the U.S. laws that once justified slavery and segregation, he brought in an unexpectedly personal angle. “As an African-American in the United States, I am painfully aware of the history of what happens when people are treated differently, under the law, and there were all sorts of rationalizations that were provided by the power structure for decades in the United States for segregation and Jim Crow and slavery, and they were wrong.”

He was not calling for a change in religious doctrine in Kenya, he said. “The state just has to say we’re going to treat everybody equally under the law.”

As Kenyatta made clear, little is likely to change in terms of Kenyan laws regarding gay rights. That was not the expectation, says U.S. presidential spokesman Ben Rhodes, who was accompanying Obama on the trip. Obama, he said, has been raising the issue during all his Africa travels. “Frankly, what we can do is keep a spotlight on [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] rights and raise this issue and make sure that governments know that they are going to be hearing about this from us and hopefully from our partners in the international community.”

Nonetheless, Obama’s passionate defense of equality in a country that has long claimed him, a grandson of Kenya, for their own, may yet plant a seed that leads to greater acceptance down the line.

TIME Global Entrepreneur Summit 2015

Obama Sees Kenya as a Hotbed of Innovation — Not Terror

At the Global Entrepreneur Summit in Nairobi, the U.S. President focuses on how innovation and entrepreneurs are the key to Africa's future

Africa “is on the move,” President Obama told the world on Saturday. Speaking in Nairobi at the U.S.-sponsored Global Entrepreneur Summit, Obama told an audience of international innovators, investors, businessmen and government officials that the continent’s best route out of poverty and away from extremism is through supporting entrepreneurship. “It’s the spark of prosperity. It helps citizens stand up for their rights, and push back against corruption,” Obama said, after greeting the audience in Swahili, one of the languages of his Kenyan-born father.

While Obama said that his trip to Kenya, a first for a sitting American President, was in part personal—“there is a reason I am named Barack Hussein Obama,” he quipped to a roar of laughter—one of the principal drivers of his visit is to increase security partnerships in a region threatened by terrorism. Innovation and opportunity, Obama said, are the antidote. “Entrepreneurship offers a positive alternative to the ideologies of violence and division that all too often can fill the void when young people don’t see a future for themselves.”

Obama launched the Global Entrepreneur Summit in 2010 to encourage young innovators with mentorships, training and funding. As co-host with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Obama highlighted several Kenyan startups that are already changing the world, from crowd-sourcing platform Ushahidi to mobile banking innovation M-PESA. There are many more, he promised, and “each has the potential to be the next great Kenyan innovation.”

Obama didn’t have to look far for examples. In the audience was Erik Hersman, the American-born, Kenyan-educated co-founder of BRCK, a palm-size device that is changing how the developing world gets online. It’s a sturdy, battery-powered, portable server designed to deliver access to the Web for the estimated 800 million people in Africa who live off the Internet grid. The BRCK captures mobile phone signals using a data SIM card (which can be purchased anywhere in the world), and broadcasts it like a WiFi hotspot, even when there is no electricity. It’s water resistant, dust-proof and can survive being dropped on the ground. It will work wherever there is a signal, but is made for remote areas, as the logo printed on the back points out: If it can work in Africa, it can work anywhere.

“BRCK provides an ability to connect to content like we have never seen before,” said Erich Broksas, senior vice president for investment strategy at the Case Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based philanthropic impact investment organization. Broksas, who was at the Summit scouting for investment opportunities, said that Kenyan innovations like the BRCK are appealing because they are designed specifically for their environment. “We see a lot of great ideas coming through a MIT development lab that don’t work in the real world. BRCK is a global solution designed for Africa, but one that can work just as easily in Palo Alto or Alaska.”

For the moment, however, Hersman is focusing closer to home. He has partnered with Kenyan digital learning startup eLimu to produce a tablet computer system designed for the country’s primary school students. When co-founders Nivi Mukherjee and Marie Githinji first launched their tablet-based learning app, they quickly understood that their biggest challenge wasn’t going to be the software, but the hardware. Existing tablets were not rugged enough for the rigors of primary school. They were expensive to replace and difficult to repair. Not all schools had electricity. Many also lacked Internet, so the software couldn’t be updated. They distributed two-dozen tablets loaded with eLimu’s interactive learning app to one school in the pilot program, only to return three weeks later to find the tablets locked in a closet.

Githinji and Mukherjee turned to Hersman for help. “We needed hardware that meets the functionality requirements, price point, and rugged shelf life of Africa,” said Mukherjee. Hersman and the eLimu team applied the BRCK philosophy to create a tablet computer sturdy enough to handle conditions in a Kenyan primary school. Then they built a portable kit that comes with one BRCK and 40 of those tablets, each nestled in a slot that provides contact-charging, which helps avoid tangled wires and broken chargers. Instead of loading software on each tablet, they loaded it onto to the BRCK, which then pushes the information to the tablets wirelessly. The BRCK itself can be updated remotely, via cellular signal. Even if it is not within mobile range, it can push content stored on the device to the tablets. As long as there is at least some electricity for a few hours a day, even if from a solar panel or a car battery, the whole kit can be charged up and ready for another school day.

The 40-tablet kit sells for $5,000—a fraction of the cost of most one-laptop-per-child programs. And there is a potentially huge market: The government of Kenya has committed $170 million to bring digital learning to its 22,000 primary schools by 2016, part of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2013 campaign pledge to improve the country’s education system. The Summit, said Hersman, will be a turning point for Kenyan startups. “Until now, the investment mindset has been ‘we will give you some money, but we really think of you as an aid recipient.’” By bringing in international investors, he said, the U.S. State Department is showing the world that “what is going on in Kenya isn’t just about safaris and slums and marathon runners. There are real businesses here providing real world solutions that have a global reach.” Echoing Kenyan frustration over being termed, by CNN, a “hotbed of terror,” Hersman evokes a better designation for his adopted country. Kenya, he said, is a hotbed of innovation.

TIME Kenya

See How Kenyan Political Cartoonists View Obama

An exhibit of political cartoons in Nairobi is timed for Obama's first visit to the country as a U.S. President

Correction appended, July 25

President Barack Obama’s trip to Kenya marks the first time an American leader has ever visited the East African nation, and residents of the capital, Nairobi, put up banners, billboards and flags to celebrate the occasion. Over at PAWA254, an artists’ collective that prides itself on speaking truth to power, organizers prepared a different kind of welcome: a cartoon retrospective spanning Obama’s association with Kenya, from his visit as a senator in 2006 to his return this month.

“The idea was to explain how perceptions of Obama have changed since he was last here in 2006,” says award-winning Kenyan political cartoonist Patrick Gathara, who launched the exhibit just as Obama’s plane was touching down. (Obama first visited Kenya in 1988, but cartoonists back then weren’t paying attention to a gawky teenager’s pilgrimage to his father’s birthplace in a rural village.)

When Obama was elected President in 2008, Kenya declared a national holiday. But Gathara says that Obama’s image, charted through the prism of Kenya’s editorial cartoons, has suffered through the years from a U.S.-born American politician returning to his father’s birthplace to a historic presidential hopeful to the ultimate symbol of American might, for both good and bad. “In 2006 he was welcomed as Kenyan coming from abroad, but now people see him as an American President, and that carries a lot of baggage,” says Gathara. Relations between the U.S. and Kenya hit a low point over the 2013 Kenyan presidential elections, when Obama’s State Department was perceived to be critical of Kenya’s current president, Uhuru Kenyatta. Johnnie Carson, then Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said that the United States did not have a preferred candidate in the election, but that “choices have consequences,” a comment that was widely taken as a slur against Kenyatta, who came to power in 2007 through a disputed, and violent, election.

Though the United States is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Kenyans believe that the U.S., and Obama in particular, backed a 2012 indictment against Kenyatta alleging that he’d orchestrated the 2007 violence. The charges were withdrawn in December 2014 for lack of sufficient evidence.

The ICC theme features frequently in the cartoon exhibition. So too do pointed commentaries on U.S. calls for ending discrimination against homosexuals in Africa, a touchy subject in a country, that like most of Africa, has a hard time accepting homosexuality.

Gathara says he personally believes in equal rights for Kenyan homosexuals, but adds that it has been a difficult subject to tackle for cartoonists—especially since there is a knee jerk resistance to American lecturing among Africans, no matter how justified the lesson. Cartoonists, he says, too often simply reflect public opinion. “I think it is time that we as cartoonists stop pandering to our audience and challenge them instead, by looking at how we deal with our own issues and our own problems.”

Other cartoons in the exhibit speak to a more universal theme: that of a President who has taken a beating during his time in power. Another theme is waning American influence, as Kenya, tired of American lectures, courts China, which has invested more than $5 billion in the East African nation since 2011.

Even though Kenyans are tried of being told how to act by the U.S., some, like Gathara, hope that Obama’s visit will bring more than just improved relations, goodwill and a few nice speeches. Kenya, he says, has a lot of problems, from insecurity to terrorism and corruption—and the country’s leadership doesn’t seem to be doing much to address those issues. “Ours is a government that responds to pressure, not nice words. So I hope behind closed doors, Obama is telling our leaders to stop running this country like a game and to start doing their jobs, so we, as Kenyans, can keep doing ours.” There is a cartoon somewhere in that, he muses. He is just waiting to see how the Obama visit goes before putting it in pictures.

Correction: The original story misstated the amount of Chinese investment in Kenya since 2011. It is more than $5 billion.

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