Possible collaboration/focus on African scifi writers + Economists?

So, I have been following Niti Bhan’s work on prepaid economies, and am thinking about what we could do together in the scifi economics lab.

How about one of the webinars around her findings + a scifi author. We can reach out to Ingrid Lafleur for the arts bit as she is very plugged into the African scene (she was Ayana’s gallerist for a long time and incidentally has run for mayor in detroit).

What do you guys think?

image credit: Josiah Mackey


I like that.

What do you mean “the arts bit”?


filmmakers, graphic novelists etc

OK – found some time to look Niti Bhan up. She gets around. Here is her bio: http://nitibhan.com/about-niti/. Niti is an interesting person with interesting ideas about African informal economies, but she is not African – she is Indian, went to high school in Kuala Lumpur, college in London plus Bangalore plus Ahmedabad plus Chicago, MBA from Pittsburg, now earning Ph.D. at Aalto Uni in Finland. So very very much global elite. “Her dissertation topic will cover the adaptation of design methodology for systemically lowering the barriers to adoption of novel technologies in challenging operating environments, particularly the rapidly digitalizing informal economy of sub Saharan Africa.” What we used to call “appropriate technology” when I was an Econ grad student in the 80s – of course what is available and what is appropriate has changed a lot.

Bhan has a TED talk (https://youtu.be/d0a0eXJ5TJM) from Aug 2017 in which she talks about informal traders and the obstacles they encounter. These are not hugely different from small business people and informal service providers in poor areas of American cities, and I suspect of every city. I know something about such businesses in Houston through my students, and they face obstacles that are to some extent comparable – I cannot agree more that such micro businesses should be assisted in order to release economic potential among the poor – I have been working on such a project on a very small scale.

The prepaid economy has to do with having to pay for everything in advance. The chart she showed in a 2014 article states that this model doesn’t apply to North America, but I absolutely declare that it does – only among the poor – again, this is the way my students live, and those among them who are entrepreneurs operate precisely this way. Finance is a desperate need if we are to unlock this potential, but no one in the United States, including Black-owned businesses, are willing to enter the market – the margins are too small, the entrepreneurs too unreliable, etc. By the way, among my friends who are in some kind of business who live on Indian reservations in the US (usually handicrafts, from rank amateurs to accomplished artists), the situation is the same.

Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank is an attempt to address this problem. I have studied Grameen Bank’s work off and on since the 80s, and have an idea which has changed over time. When I first encountered it, I thought it was great – more recently I think it still only partly addresses this need for business finance. If you are aware of Grameen Bank, it was formed in 1983 to offer very small loans to groups of mostly women – recent studies suggest that the help it provides mostly does not enable these women to climb to the next stage of business, but only to continue at the original low level, which is very good, but not as transformative as one had hoped.

So… I have a lot of African students, and I have encountered a number of entrepreneurs, in Russia, China, India, the Middle East, Africa, etc. from poor countries, and thought about how to help them. They are often very very entrepreneurial people – especially Africans – they all want a business. Those who do so tend to be government workers who found a business on the side. So thinking about it as I write… it seems to me that the simplest way to do so might be to encourage what already works. This is almost always treated as a problem, as corruption, or as something that prevents the governments from working well (in any given office there tends to be one person plus a secretary who carries the entire load of the function of the office, while everyone else spends 90% of their days pursueing their little business on the side). This view has a fair amount of validity… but if we look at it from the other side, I can say with complete assurance that government offices are the best incubators for entrepreneurs in poor countries – they provide a stable income that can finance a startup long enough for it to succeed, and give access to resources of people that can be invaluable in setting up a business that would otherwise be impossible.

So talk to Niti. I would not consider her African really, but as someone who has worked hard on the economic lives of the poor who are outside the formal economy. The people she is looking at are traders, who are, on the income scale, below the office workers with side-jobs I just mentioned, and above the very poor people helped by Grameen Bank. And Heaven knows those people – all of these people – need structures and institutions that help them rather than getting in their way and often criminalizing them.


What questions would you be interested in hearing her take on? Anything you think we should ask her as an opening for a good conversation?

She has identified this group – the informal traders who deal in prepaid cash transactions – as the group she is focusing on. And that is of course fine – they are an underappreciated group that could use help, and that help would probably boost not only them, but also the economies of the countries where they live.

So first I guess I would ask her what is so great about this group, based on her years of study? We know that Grameen Bank and other similar groups have focused on a poorer population that benefits from very small loans. We know that in Brazil there is a program Bolsa Familia (which I didn’t get into earlier, but it is another population that is being assisted), and there are other similar programs, which keep the children of poor families in school through direct cash transfers. We know there is a program Kiva which provides small loans from individuals online to very small trader-type businesses, but also for other purposes including education (I have an account with Kiva, for example). We know the World Bank has identified Small & Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) as businesses that it has targeted to receive subsidized loans to increase the size of their businesses. There are a number of groups and a number of programs. Could she please tell us what is special about the cash-based trader group that makes helping them important?

Second question is: How does she propose to provide help? Help can be provided at the scale of multinational governmental organizations such as UN agencies, government-to-government assistance such as USAID or the Canadian International Development Agency or any of various government groups, or through NGOs, which might work with national development agencies, or private sector groups such as Rotary International or others, and of course faith-based aid agencies. The pluses and minuses of these organizations are known at this stage. Does she think any of these kinds of organizations might provide the assistance that is needed? Or does she think another model would work better? How would a model she thinks is a good one engage with small-scale traders on the ground?

Does she have in mind a particular mode of assistance that she thinks is best? Training? Loans or some other form of finance? Cash transfers?

Does she have in mind a particular place she thinks would be the best place to start? Why?

Has she an estimate of the monetary and other types of benefit that would be achieved by the particular form of assistance she thinks would be optimal as delivered through the modality she thinks best – for this group (as well as secondary benefits to their children, neighborhood stores, taxes, etc etc.)? Not to put anyone on the spot, but just to get an idea of how worthwhile she thinks her effort would be, because if the benefit is great then I suppose Edgeryders would be especially interested to help.

And as far as science fiction is concerned…

This a small story, about a humble group that works hard to make a life for their families. So no space empires. There must be technology – transformative fintech? There is really an ideal protagonist in Teresia, the single mother trader in Malaba, Kenya, on the Ugandan border. She hangs her clothes for sale on a tree. I don’t know Teresia’s background, but that area is home to many Kalenjin people, one of the large ethnic groups of Kenya and Uganda. There is a Kalenjin mythology which could be integrated into a story. The tree could be a “prayer tree” – a medium between the mythological and human spheres. The boy, probably Teresia’s son, who looks skeptically into the camera in one of the photos shown in Niti Bhan’s TED talk would of course be “inspired” with the design of this financial technology, various gods of different local ethnicities would fight over the resources that it creates, etc. So maybe a sci-fi/fantasy of the African sort…

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@Player1, any ideas?

Hi All

So…I am coming into this a bit late, and I am not entirely sure what the intentions are of the project, which may help me offer suggestions or know which bits of knowledge to offer.

I think if there is an interest in a future projection of the economic structures of the world, there is a vast amount of literature to be found from African academics.
In terms of African Scifi writers. I guess afrofuturism is a pretty big thing in many African countries, in my circle in South Africa, this isnt the focus. I prefer afrosurrealism.

Uhm, what I can offer, is that a while back I was thinking about making a platform inspired by babelbetweenus, my friends and I developed thenewnormalgame.
it is mostly on facebook and interactive.http://www.thenewnormalgame.co.za/
basically it is a game where me and my friends ask a select group of players to figure out South African crisis and propose a solution in a voice note. we then use the voice note to make a film and facebook audiences vote in a poll for the solution they prefer . the winning solution creates the ‘world’ for the next crisis scenario. Some of our players are economists, filmmakers, anarchist gardeners, professors and directors of national feminist environmental nonprofits. https://www.newframe.com/the-new-normal-game-is-loading-near-you/ thank you for the inspiration.

My personal interest is afro-surrealism not afrofuturism. Off the top of my head, Some references to artists, academics, economists would be:

Masana Ndinga is our economist player, she also works at civicus which is a large ngo that supports grassroots movements. She has been an amazing player. She also just knows the stuff.

In terms of the economic livilhoods of economically excluded people. SERI has interesting research on the the way people find livelihoods in informal settlements in South Africa.

Uhm, we have also been chatting lot of Masello.
Masello is an artist that has moved into and reclaimed an abandoned mansion, there is a vr film about it, made by Dylan Valley, one of our players in the game.

it is also our national arts fair soon and everything is digital so you could look at the program and maybe there is something that intrigues.

These are my initial thoughts.


oh and these are cool institutes in south africa

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This is a very fresh, valuable insight, @petussing.

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Hey, this is great. Very happy we could play some minor part in inspiring it. Using voice notes is a brilliant idea. How is it going?

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Masana sounds very impressive – may also be a candidate for EdgeRyders to talk to.

"Masana Ndinga-Kanga (neé Mulaudzi) is an African womxn, and mama to Elikia Shiana, a fierce bundle of #BlackGirlMagic who is her everything.

"When she is not trying to keep mini-human alive, Masana is the Crisis Response Fund Lead at CIVICUS. She is also part of the first cohort of Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equality at the London School of Economics, where she is now a Senior Fellow.

“With a multi-disciplinary background in African Studies, politics, economics, international development and law, Masana has an MSc in Political Economy of Late Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a B.Com. in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Cape Town. She has worked at the Robert F Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights in Washington D.C., the Poverty and Inequality Initiative (UCT) and as the first Machel-Mandela Fellow at The Brenthurst Foundation in Johannesburg, where she has been involved in multi-country studies on economic development, international relations, innovations in development practices and conflict analysis. She is also a frequent blogger for Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader and an alumnus of the South African Washington International Program and the David & Elaine Potter Fellowship. Masana is also a Chevening Scholar from 2012–13.”

Not your typical economist. Which is just what we need…



Useful article: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-broadnax-afrofuturism-black-panther_n_5a85f1b9e4b004fc31903b95

Afrofuturism is built around the idea of authenticity. Authenticity is hard to define, and it is essentialist, which has all kinds of problems, BUT (and this is the important bit) it clears a space in which voices of actual Africans can make themselves heard, instead of just being wiped out by (presumably) well-meaning and even well-informed but still Europe-derived speakers.

“What makes Afrofuturism significantly different from standard science fiction is that it’s steeped in ancient African traditions and black identity. A narrative that simply features a black character in a futuristic world is not enough. To be Afrofuturism, it must be rooted in and unapologetically celebrate the uniqueness and innovation of black culture.”

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Wow, this is brilliant work, @petussing, thank you so much!

Thank you, Alberto — raising up new voices and watching them lead the conversation is a particular interest of mine.

Best wishes,


Audiences are unsure of how to consume it. Sometimes they think that it is real events, other times they watch with a spiked curiosity.

In about 2 months, we have 1200 followers, which is both a lot and a little.

We are on an interval to update the game and figure out how to improve it. It has received interest from universities and digital new media platforms.

In terms of the ideas, it is testing principles we considered inherent and looks to how people can move beyond what we have been expected to believe is the way it it.


Had a long chat with Niti, she is doing really interesting work with vendors of perishable goods in Kenyan slums. We have started scheming on some possible collaborations. I’ll post here when I know more

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Seriously cool!
Please tell me! I’ll keep an eye out.