Peter Guest

Journalism & Photography

Vision in the Desert: How Tunisian Plains Could Provide All of Europe’s Energy

Squinting in the sunlight, Maurizio Scaravaggi checks his watch and uses his shadow to find north. He turns to look west, out over a featureless landscape to the horizon. “That is ours,” he says, picking up a handful of sand and letting it run through his fingers.

Rjim Maatoug, this patch on the northern edge of the Sahara, is not the dramatic landscape of a Hollywood desert, but a wide, sandy plain, punctuated every few metres by dried shrubs. A few kilometres away an oasis has been turned into a commercial palm-oil plantation, the only industry in this desolate region of Tunisia. “We won’t have to clear the land,” he says. “The mirrors won’t need much space, and the bushes will hold the sand.”

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Neil Turok: In Search of Africa’s Einstein

The city is largely low-rise, although there are patches of new construction; buildings in the faded yellows and pinks that represent new west African modernism. Roadsides bristle with billboards advertising mobile phones, televisions, beer and real estate. Traffic has grown along with the economy. Cars spill out on to the Cape Coast Road, which snakes from Nigeria’s commercial hub of Lagos in the east to the battered but recovering Ivorian city of Abidjan in the west. Roughly at the midpoint — about 50 kilometres west of Accra — is Saltpond. Once the site of the earliest European military structures on the continent, the area is about to become home to the latest outpost of AIMS — the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

The brainchild of South African cosmologist Neil Turok, one of Africa’s most decorated scientists, AIMS is a bold initiative that seeks to create a new scientific class in Africa. More than that, Turok hopes to advance science through the rest of the world by teasing from Africa’s intelligentsia an individual who can re-imagine how we see the world. Turok intends to create a mathematical community by establishing mathematical bootcamps. He plans to build 15, with versions already in Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa.

Turok, 54, sees conditions in Africa today as comparative to those of eastern Europe 100 years ago: then, ambitious young Jews were suddenly granted access to education, and went on to make significant discoveries and advances in science. Now it is the turn of Africans. “Einstein came from a very disadvantaged community, which had been completely excluded from university until the second half of the 19th century,” he says in his office in Ontario, Canada, where he runs the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. “But once they got into university, that first generation, you start having Jacobi, Einstein, Bohr, Pauli. This group completely revolutionised physics.”

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Switching On: Africa’s Vast New Tech Opportunity

In 2011, visitors to Africa looking for war, famine and pestilence have to dig a lot deeper than in the past. At Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, hardened missionaries have been replaced by gap-year students clustered around iPads, and on the streets the bad old days have given way to another holy trinity: Premier League football, Toyota Hiace minibuses and cellphones.

Africa’s national economies have grown consistently over the last decade. Even in the depths of the financial crisis, GDP growth exceeded three percent: more than in any other region of the world. Improvements in security, Chinese investments and soaring commodity prices have all played a part in transforming the continent’s prospects.

Beyond macroeconomic factors, though, technology is driving profound changes to economies and societies across the continent. The hundreds of millions of mobile handsets and billions of airtime minutes only go some way to describe the scope of entrepreneurship that underpins Africa’s technological revolution. From mobile payments to telemedicine and advertising, there is a common pulse of innovation, driven by an irrepressible combination of aspiration and necessity. This is the new Africa.

Read More in Wired Magazine