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Digital solutions for Africa: The 2018 MIT Sloan Africa Innovate Conference convenes at the MIT Media Lab April 7

Africa. In many ways it has a long way to travel to compete as a peer in the contemporary global marketplace. But from another perspective, the population is highly motivated to find solutions to crippling problems and incentivized to reinvent those systems that are barriers to progress. The MIT Sloan Africa Innovate Conference is an annual touchstone for just how far Africa has come and where it goes next.

Ismail Ahmed, WorldRemit founder & CEO, one of the keynote speakers at the 2018
MIT Africa Innovate Conference.

“Digitization for Inclusive Growth” is the theme of the 2018 conference, which is organized by the MIT Africa Business Club and takes place at the MIT Media Lab on April 7. Workshops and panels will evaluate the lessons of the last decade of technological advancement and explore how to leverage digitization to ensure that Africa’s progress is as inclusive as possible.

The conference will feature a Solveathon led by the MIT Solve Center. Teams of entrepreneurs will develop and pitch solutions related to coastal communities, healthcare, education, and the future of work. In addition, panels will delve into the most intractable challenges that countries on the African continent still face—challenges that require strategic innovation on a grand scale. Those panels will include investigations into:

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More than one way to be multinational

Global expansion is a core goal of many major corporations, but some are beginning to rewrite the multinational rules of the road. With 300 locations around the world, General Electric (GE) is one such pathfinder, recently rethinking which functions should be regionalized and which should remain local.

Global Operations Executive Leader, Oleg Bodiul, SF ’13 took on the vast transformation role as part of a GE leadership team tasked with creating a global shared-services organization that would centralize many of the company’s key functions, including accounting, finance, and commercial operations.

Among the top 100 firms in the world, GE is a digital-industrial player providing software-defined machines and solutions for markets ranging from aviation, power generation, and oil and gas to renewables, healthcare, and financial services. “Historically, functions like accounting and order management were performed in hundreds of locations around the globe. The objective was to centralize, where possible, into a few locations to leverage scale and deliver better outcomes for our customers, employees, and shareholders.”

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Smart phones are outwitting poverty

Alexander Graham Bell would be astonished at the power of today’s smart phones. Yes, the app that makes it possible to find a Starbucks along an unfamiliar highway can feel like a miracle, but the true revolutionary power of the telephone is felt most in developing countries. In Kenya, for example, the mobile phone has, to some extent, stabilized the economy for many citizens and transformed quality of life.

Nearly all Kenyan households own at least one mobile phone—not state-of-the-art smart phones, but phones “smart” enough to accommodate at least one M-Pesa account. Available to any customer of Safaricom, Kenya’s mobile network leader, M-Pesa is a money transfer service that allows a daughter at one corner of the country to send money safely and securely to her mother in a village seven hours away. Previously, she would have entrusted an envelope of cash to a bus driver heading to her mother’s village (at considerable risk) or relied on a money transfer that took days—and a daunting amount of red tape—to process.

Of course, to withdraw funds through an M-Pesa account you must have access to an agent who can disperse the cash. Happily, in response to the popularity of M-Pesa, the network across Kenya has mushroomed to 150,000 agents. Working with Innovations for Poverty Action, Associate Professor of Applied Economics Tavneet Suri, a native Kenyan, and her colleague William Jack have been tracking incomes in regions where new agents have opened for business. They compared the financial health of those regions with that of regions where agents are not as accessible.

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A robot can drive you to work, but can it advise you on your finances?

The founding father of artificial intelligence Marvin Minsky once said that his ultimate goal was not so much to build a computer he could be proud of as to build one that would be proud of him. MIT Sloan Professor Andrew Lo mentioned this anecdote in a recent piece about financial advisers in The Wall Street Journal. In essence, he poses the question: Can a robot do the job?

Andrew LoLo says that while tech-savvy millennials would be just as happy interacting with an app as with a human adviser, robo advisers can’t take into account the emotion of investors. “When the stock market roils, investors freak out,” Lo explains. “They need comfort and encouragement.” During the recent stock-market rout, he notes that Vanguard Group was so besieged with calls from jittery investors it had to pull staff from across the company to handle the call volume. “Investing is an emotional process,” Lo says, and “robo advisers don’t do emotion.” At least not right now.

Integrating human feeling into the digital advising process is probably the greatest challenge of financial technology. Lo likens the present state of digital financial advising to a rotary phone in an iPhone world. He points out that investing is much more complex and nuanced than tasks like driving, “which is why driverless cars are already more successful than even the best robo advisers.”

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Improving the prediction of currency movements

ForbesExchange rates—they don’t exactly make the world go round, but when they fluctuate, they can give it a bumpy ride. As MIT Sloan Professor Kristin Forbes wrote on the commerce website MarketWatch recently, movements in exchange rates can significantly affect a country’s competitiveness. On a macro level, they can have an impact on everything from export competitiveness to GDP growth and can make it harder to repay foreign debt and reduce earnings on foreign investments. On a micro level, exchange rates can push up or down the prices of key merchandise, from oil to oranges.

“Currency movements also have big implications for the outlook for inflation,” says Forbes, who is an external member of the Monetary Policy Committee for the Bank of England. “This relationship is known as ‘pass through’…it captures how changes in the exchange rate pass through to import prices and inflation…for those of us tasked with setting monetary policy, understanding how currency movements pass through into inflation is critical to our decision on when to adjust interest rates.”

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How successful is that social program? Check the data.

Smart data, and lots of it. Brian Beachkofski, SF’ 12, and John Grossman, SF ’12, are leveraging it to improve the human condition. Beachkofski (senior director) and Grossman (co-president and general counsel) work for Third Sector Capital Partners, Inc. The nonprofit consulting firm evaluates extensive sets of data to guide governments, social service agencies, and private funders in building social programs that successfully address critical challenges.

John Grossman

John Grossman

The innovative “pay-for-success (PFS)” social service model works this way: A government agency identifies a critical social need—chronic homelessness, for example. Then, funders like banks or charitable foundations provide upfront capital to a high-performing social service provider that can help meet that need. If the providers achieve predetermined outcome levels, as verified by an independent evaluator, the government repays the private funders’ initial investment. Third Sector, a leader in developing PFS initiatives, serves as a facilitator and advisor to all parties in the process, using data as the basis for modeling the project and projecting the benefit to the at-need population.

Brian Beachofski

Brian Beachofski

One example of the success of the PFS model is a Third Sector project in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Beachkofski, Grossman, and their team partner with nonprofit and government agencies to reunite families with children who have been placed in foster care. The children originally were removed from their homes because their families were struggling with domestic violence, substance abuse, and homelessness. Data indicates that such children spend significantly longer lengths of time in foster care and suffer the loss of consistent caregivers.

Using a PFS model, the county government partners with a local nonprofit service provider to support these fragile families with access to housing, mental health, and other social services. As a result, they are reuniting families faster and improving lives while creating greater accountability for government spending.

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East Africa: A Fertile Entrepreneurial Frontier

flavianmarwa_HeadshotThe African continent is, in many realms, an untapped frontier, and many global business analysts believe that one of those areas is entrepreneurship. “East Africa, in particular, is very green ground for basic entrepreneurship,” says Flavian Marwa, SF ’10. “Here, it’s more important to execute a simple idea well than to come up with an idea that no one has thought of. You don’t have to be a sophisticated technologist to take advantage of this environment.”

A consultant with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), an arm of the World Bank Group, Marwa uses his insights into the continent to advise the IFC on how African countries can implement policies that stimulate the creation and growth of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). “The idea is to bring in the private sector as much as possible. We know this approach leads to sustainable development. To be effective, however, policies to support SMEs also must address impediments in the value chain of targeted sectors.” Impediments like the skills gap, lack of mentorship, and information asymmetry.

Marwa says that leaders who are committed to a robust education system—from primary to secondary to university levels—will enable their citizens to develop a keen eye for opportunities and empower them with the skills to launch businesses. He notes that in Tanzania and other East African countries, the IFC is encouraging multinational companies to collaborate with universities to develop curricula that are relevant to what is actually happening in industry.

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Resuscitating the Spanish economy—a lesson in strategic thinking

José-Maria Fernández, SF ’10After a precipitous free fall beginning in 2008, the Spanish economy, the fourth largest in the Eurozone, is beginning to climb out of recession, and there is nothing serendipitous about the recovery. José-Maria Fernández, SF ’10, Director General of the Spanish Treasury, and his team devote a major share of their working life to in-depth analysis and strategic thinking on how to finance the country and the implications for taxpayers in the short, medium, and long terms. “All our thinking translates into a relatively small number of decisions and actions,” Fernández says—actions, of course, that have wide-ranging impact and potentially long-term consequences.

“We raise approximately 240 billion euros a year selling bonds and bills globally to investors while executing only 50 or 60 funding transactions annually,” Fernández adds. “We probably spend 90% of our time designing, evaluating, and revising our financial strategy in light of market, economic, and budgetary conditions. That means only 10% of our activity is devoted to execution.” The equation, he believes, is as it should be.

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Financial literacy promotes good government

“When written in Chinese,” John F. Kennedy once said, “the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”

deborah-lucas2MIT Sloan Distinguished Professor of Finance Deborah Lucas believes that the 2008 financial meltdown is a case in point, triggering a tectonic shift for policymaking within government financial organizations. “If you’re looking for silver linings in the 2008 crisis,” says Lucas, “the chance to focus attention on financial literacy and transparency in the public sector is a big one. A large segment of the policy community agrees that we must act now to improve the accuracy of our risk assessments.”

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Can financial engineering cure cancer?

Like so many of civilization’s great conundrums, the quest for a cure for cancer needs more money. Drug development can take a decade and close to a billion dollars, so funders aren’t exactly queuing up to help commercialize innovations.

Andrew LoMIT Sloan Professor Andrew Lo and his colleagues have devised a revolutionary way of financing drug development through “securitized debt.” In an article in Nature Biotechnology, Lo and his coauthors Jose-Maria Fernandez, SF ’10, and Roger M. Stein of Moody’s suggest that a large megafund comprising long-term bonds issued by leading drug companies could help investors justify the funding of risky biomedical research.

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