Upon first glance of the opening credits of Black Panther, Marvel’s long-awaited and instant blockbuster, I thought to myself, “I’ve seen this before.” Buried deep in my memory was the image of an African nation, far more technologically advanced than any Western civilization. A nation with the ability to jumpstart smart cities at the snap of a finger, grow organic food using the most efficient and environmentally friendly processes known to man, communicate with the outside world in lightning speed, and build impenetrable technological infrastructures. But where have I seen it before?
It wasn’t from the comic books. I knew that because I’m barely old enough to remember when they were still printed. It wasn’t from a dream inception or a fable told to me by a stranger in passing. This was something I knew. It resembled something I knew far too well.
Back in 2004, Mikal Kamil, global strategist and technocrat called me once a month from the UK and Kazakhstan while on a political trip for peace. “Young Tiger!”, he always sang through the phone with the same tone every time; I used to think it was an audio recording. Very early on my cousin gave me the name ‘Young Tiger’ as an ode to my great-grandmother Susie who left the Seminole reservation as a teen to search for a better life up North.
“I sent you an email, did you read it? What do you think?”, which he still echoes today with the utmost consistency. Back then, I was just a ten-year-old kid with aspirations to play professional basketball. I had many interests though: history, politics, and international business to name a few. I hadn’t always understood his emails from a micro standpoint because I was too young but I understood their concepts and could lend my opinion without fear of being right or wrong. Whatever I thought, I said candidly and Mikal would always respond in the most intriguing of ways as if he had been given the formula to world domination, “Excellent, Young Tiger…you are on your way.”
Fast forward a decade and life happenings ahead, I’m a college student who abandoned the hoop dreams to intern and work for a U.S. Senator while my cousin lived in Los Angeles helping to elect the current Mayor, Eric Garcetti. Of course, the monthly calls turned into weekly calls. In-depth updates would ensue regarding the many projects we were both engulfed in. It was around that time that he had began to explain the true nature of HubCityLive! and its ability to transform inner-cities and emerging African nations in need of vibrancy, technology, and youth. He started to send over detailed plans as to how a technology hub for the youth could be implemented into Compton, California, a city in the Greater Los Angeles area starving for more investment; particularly for the youth.
It was around that time that I started to do research: studies of my own on population, technological viability, trigger points, existing youth programs, et cetera. I began to wear this project on my heart as I did with my own projects. I believed in the plan because of the impact it could have on young people and people in need of chance; particularly disenfranchised Black and Brown people but quite frankly I was a skeptic in regard to how it would work. ‘Who would pay for this?’, I thought. ‘How would we pitch this to places who rather have investment come in other forms for their myriad of needs?’ The research continued and Mikal continued to slowly bring the plan to life, with his team.
It’s Winter 2017, cold as ice in my hometown Philadelphia. Mikal calls, “Young Tiger, I’m leaving for Ethiopia in a couple days.” I responded in shock and jealousy of his escape to the heat, ‘Wait…what? Aren’t we supposed to be rolling out the plan to the Compton city government? Didn’t they unofficially approve the preliminary plan last week?’ So many questions raised in my head. At this time, I had spent two years as a lobbyist in the Northeast and was incredibly busy trying to keep my head above water. When I had time to focus on HubCityLive!, I went all in and alterations of information is never a welcomed reality in my business; as information is currency. This frustrated me.
“Young Tiger, slow down…the people of Compton are ready, but the political will isn’t there. We’ll get back to Compton when the time is right. We have strong relations in Ethiopia. They are ready. We are going to build the ubiquitious city there first along the Blue Nile River”, in his most reassuring voice. Around February 2018, Mikal began to rebrand and curtail HubCityLive!’s campaign as Building The Real Wakanda in Ethiopia. He has always been so matter of fact in his approach with things and always means exactly what he says. He was only supposed to be there for a couple months to meet the government, review potential sites for a hub, meet with the community leaders, build rapport — and if they were all suitable, come back to seal the deal. Months had passed, and he was still there. Our calls became more and more intriguing as he reported on his meetings and interactions, “They love us here in Ethiopia. They love Hub City. This is it. This is where HubCityLive! will be built.”
I was more intrigued at the timing and the pure irony of the project having no legs in a city in need back in the U.S., yet it was welcomed with open arms in Ethiopia in the shadow of a blockbuster comic book movie about an African superhero who is the king of a tech-spoiled nation.
Present-day: Mikal is approaching the year-mark in Ethiopia. He has met with dozens of community leaders, President Gedu Andargaschew of the Amharic Regional State Government and his cabinet, and the Ministry of Science and Technology. He’s flown back and forth from Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa to attain information for the project’s conceptual master plan, feasibility study and business development. He conducted a preliminary site analysis along the Blue Nile River to determine whether the area was ripe enough for a multibillion dollar development. In July, he held a symposium to discuss the project with stakeholders and Ethiopian media which garnered some legitimizing press. Shortly after, he received a letter of intent from a prominent U.S. financial firm for an estimated $3 billion.
I know what you’re thinking: all of this sounds like the perfect fairy tale business deal in the midst of a serious starvation of investment. The fact of the matter is the work is far from over. A great deal of work still needs to be done to bring this project to life and we are years away from that goal.
The most difficult part about getting governments and businesses to commit their funds to invest in communities that their actors don’t necessarily belong to is helping them to see the vision. At the sight and sound of Ethiopia, most think of a third-world country at the center of the African Union still struggling to find ways to spur economic development. Despite a portion of that story being true, it is so much more than that. It is a country with the potential to be a leading African nation in an era in which more private, foreign investment into the continent is being had than any other time period in history. It’s not often discussed in the media but public and private investment dollars from almost every major country on Earth are currently being leveraged throughout the continent of Africa and it will only grow.
Building the Real Wakanda is much more than a story of a need and an investment filling the gap. It is a story of African revival. It will serve as a catalyst for every emerging African economy to realize their true potential and understand that what has been built in technocratic places such as Tokyo, Abu Dhabi, Silicon Valley, and even the fictional Wakanda can be replicated in places such as Ethiopia. It will take a little under a decade to bring all of the pieces together and for a tangible ubiquitous city to be built but this is the juncture in which ideas are massaged and sculpted in order brought to life. In my opinion, this model of revitalization can be realized in urban communities in America just as easily, with less dollars, and widespread support. We just have to believe that it is possible; just as the people of Ethiopia are beginning to believe in the Real Wakanda.
Kyle A. Darby is a Senior Associate at Bellevue Strategies in Philadelphia, as one of the youngest government affairs professionals in the country. A social advocate and entrepreneur at heart, Kyle has dedicated himself to finding new and innovative ways to improve the social and political landscape through investment and cultural shifts.