Present-day Africa provides a plentiful of stories about poverty, misery and death, but sometimes also stories of hope. Ben Markham’s story is one of them. Founder of Empower Playgrounds Incorporated (EPI), a Ghana-based company with a unique approach to technology, innovation and philanthropy, Mr. Markham is not only a true maverick, but also can and should inspire the future of Western aid and initiatives in Africa. This paper sheds light on the man and his work and stresses the ways by which Mr. Markham truly inspires me.
Let us begin by briefly describe what Mr. Markham is doing in Ghana. A former missioner in the country and a retired ExxonMobil engineer from Utah, Mr. Markham noticed the impact of poor illumination on rural children’s only hope to make a progress in their lives, namely education. Since Ghana is located on the equator, there are usually not more than 13 hours of light every day. Since many children must help their families during day hours, a great deal of schoolwork must be done in the evening. However, since rural Ghanaians (just as about 75% of Africans) do not have access to effective electricity (if at all) and other sources of energy such as fuel are scant and expansive, schoolchildren cannot learn. Interestingly, while contemplating solutions to this problem Mr. Markham noticed another aspect of the local schools’ poor infrastructures, namely the lack of proper playing facilities, whose importance to children’s social and cognitive development cannot be underestimated.
Finding Inspiring Solutions to nearly Unsolvable Problems
Most people and aid organizations would address the two problems discussed above in a rather predictable manner. If trying to deal with it at all, they would raise funds for generators and/or for building playgrounds. If lucky enough to see the equipment arriving to their village (rather than being stolen or confiscated along the way), the local children would be very unlikely to enjoy the donation: the generators and/or the fuel needed to power them will be used for other purposes, and the playground would succumb to the destructive forces of weather and man. As a growing body of evidence suggests, this approach to aid is failing and is very likely to continue to fail, simply because it seems to be easier to raise funds for short-lived projects than to find creative and sustainable solutions to hurdles on local development (Gerhardt).
Mr. Markham’s unique approach took a very different outlook on the matters, simply by shifting the focus from the problems to solution-focused mindset. Collaborating with a team of young and enthusiastic scientists from Brigham Young University, Mr. Markham and EPI capitalized on the lack of infrastructures to introduce a genuinely brilliant solution. The team started to equip school playgrounds with merry-go-rounds that use the energy of spinning to charge batteries, which provide power to highly efficient LED lanterns in the classrooms nearby. Furthermore, EPI is now working on devices that can provide both joy and electricity for more children in the region and engage in scientific education projects that may inspire local students to work on more innovative products and improve their area’s energy supply.
A Lesson for Future Leaders
EPI’s successful attempt to implement rather simple technology in an innovative, green and socially beneficial line of endeavors did not come about by accident. Mr. Markham’s initial efforts are now recognized and supported by highly celebrated toy manufacturers, community leaders and international development agencies. All agree that his seemingly simple innovation is a major accelerator for Ghana’s economic development, and are swayed by the premise of Mr. Markham’s merry-go-rounds to promote education in other impoverished regions around the globe (Marketwire).
Notwithstanding the breathtaking ingenuity of EPI’s projects, Mr. Markham’s personal achievement is perhaps the most staggering message to young dreamers. It is rather certain that when visualizing his whirl-based solutions, Mr. Markham went back to his childhood games and dreams and thought about children’s problems from a child’s perspective. It is also this perspective that enables him to recruit engineers, businessmen and philanthropists to his endeavor. And so, we are witnessing a child, whose lifelong experience brought him into helping children in need in a way children would have it – simple, straightforward and fun activities.
It is clear, however, that Mr. Markham’s projects are nothing more than a drop in the Africa’s ocean of poverty and dismay. This rotten ocean should worry us all, as the widening gaps between societies are very bad news for both the rich and the poor. By the same token, improving poor communities’ living conditions is not only a moral responsibility for reach countries, but also a wise and valuable investment. Every child’s gain from several hours of schoolwork every day will be translated in the future to more active communities, to responsible citizens and to smaller and healthier families. Fragile as they are, education systems are the key to every society’s future.
As this paper is written, ethnic, national and religious conflicts are abundant in too many parts of the world. The recent conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire show once more than top-bottom foreign interventions such as financial aid, Peace Corps and political guidance cannot effectively lower the flames of inherent tensions (The Economist). On a sharp contract, bottom-up initiatives that focus on the well-being of impoverished communities instead on politics might bring about a critical point in many African nations’ history.
Mr. Markham, EDI and their collaborators do just that. They employ direct connections with the young population, listen to its needs and come up with comprehensive and sustainable solution, which can and should introduce science and technology as a means to improve one’s life instead of ruining one’s former and current enemies. The same approach can be deployed in our society, inasmuch as we are able to understand children for what they are – the future of our society – and do not stop thinking about how we can help them help us to build better future.