Fareed Zein's contribution to the birth of South Sudan
WRITTEN BY RICHARD CHOWNING
Fareed Zein, like many foreigners before him, came to the United States to study computer science and attempt to gain a better life than he would have in his native Sudan. Fareed was able to complete his education and secure technology positions in the oil and petroleum industry in Texas. That was without a doubt the fulfillment of a dream for he and his parents who were able to send him out of impoverished Sudan before the civil war broke out.
Zein could have very easily rested on his accomplishments and put the predicament of his Sudanese countrymen out of his mind. Yet, his heart and new found skills would not allow him to stand on the sidelines during the many transitions that were taking place in the lives of the Sudanese people. He now spends many hours outside of his day job directing the technology wing of the Sudan Institute for Research and Policy (SIRP).
One of his initiatives at SIRP was adapting an internet application called Ushahidi (witness in Swahili) which he implemented during the referendum vote for the independence of South Sudan. His adapted application is called Sudan Vote Monitor (SVM).
In the run up to the Sudan referendum for South Sudan to break away from the north was a widespread fear that the government, based in the Sudan capital Khartoum, would intimidate voters and rig the election in a bid to prevent the south from gaining independence. Zein said, “The government had control over the media and they were in a position to do whatever they wanted. We wanted to let the world know what was going on.”
In recent years cell phones and computers have found their way into even the remotest villages in Africa. Sudan is no exception and Zein saw the potential these devices had in allowing local people to report on the election process in their villages.
This technology is particularly important and useful in Sudan, Africa’s largest country. Vast distances separate villages and the current telecommunications and transportation infrastructure make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for monitors to know what is taking place at the hundreds of remote polling stations. Yet, the recent spread of mobile communications devices presented a novel and manageable opportunity to utilise SMS to overcome this challenge.
Through the SVM application, Sudanese citizens could either log-on to the website or send it a short coded message. The messages would report either "violence," "intimidation," or any number of other category options. They were even able to upload videos. That information was posted on the site, as is, and then verified by SVM's team. Though SVM is based in the US, they worked with local civil society partners on the ground in Sudan who had agreements with certified observers able to verify the truthfulness of the reports. The information that was gathered was made public in both English and Arabic.
Zein said, "Our technology is the closest thing to a real-time snapshot of what is happening on the ground during the elections. Users will have access to up-to-date information including streaming video from all over Sudan, everywhere from an election centre in Khartoum to a polling station in Juba, or a remote corner of the country."
The reports were viewed by laypersons, government officials, Sudanese expatriates in the USA and Europe and activists around the world. They used this information to notify influential persons in power, journalists, and international bodies who could take action to insure a free and fair election.
Zein believes that the implementation of the SVM application answers the question, "Can everyday technology in the hands of everyday people really replace traditional reporting and monitoring bodies meant to protect and safeguard the interests of citizens?" He understands that "replace" might be a stretch, but in places like Sudan, where governments fail to protect their citizens right to due political process, tools such as SVM will go a long way in enabling the citizens to protect themselves.
The government shut down the SVM site for 24 hours on the second day of the election. “They decided they didn’t like what was being reported and we had to go through a lot of intervention to try and bring it back online. They were clearly watching the site,” said Zein. The site was later allowed to operate and proved to be very helpful in ensuring a fair outcome of the election.
South Sudan is now independent and it can be said that Fareed Zein, through his implementation of the Sudan Vote Monitor, had a lot to do with the voice of the Sudanese people being heard.
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Billionaire Kumar Birla Champions Regional Supply Chains
As the head of the Aditya Birla Group, a US$46bn firm that operates in 36 countries, Kumar Mangalam Birla is no stranger to splashy strategic moves. Yet his recent announcement that he no longer wants to acquire globally distributed supply chains stood out. While many companies have struggled to cope with shipping backlogs, his firm has chosen to pivot and focus on regional networks. Said Birla: ‘We wouldn’t look at a company or a business where you source in one corner of the world and sell in another’.
He cited protectionism, the pandemic, and the limited movement of products and people around the world as ABG’s primary causes of lost profits. And they aren’t alone. Over the past year, 900 of the U.S. and Europe’s biggest IT, defence, and financial services firms have lost an average of US$184mn apiece.
An Era of Global Disruption
Over the past few decades, low shipping rates and rapid delivery times have lulled multinational firms into a false sense of security. In the early 2000s, companies chose to take on significant global supply chain risks in exchange for increased profits. First, it made sense to manufacture higher-value goods, such as electronics, in low-cost regions throughout Southeast Asia, India, and Africa. Second, first-tier suppliers started to outsource the manufacturing of specific components to second-, third-, and even fourth-tiers—leaving supply chains with extremely limited visibility.
So when COVID-19 disruptions struck certain regions, companies were caught unprepared. Usually, these events come few and far between. But over the past ten years, we’ve seen a number of ‘black swan’ events that have thrown the supply chain industry into chaos. Here’s a quick history of the most significant events in recent years, thanks to the MIT Sloan Management Review:
- 2010. China creates export quotas for rare earth elements.
- 2011. The Tōhoku Earthquake hits East Japan; flooding sweeps throughout Thailand.
- 2016-present. Trade wars between the U.S. and China hurt suppliers.
- 2020-present. COVID-19 pandemic shuts down international shipping ports.
Now, Kumar Birla is one of many who want to re-evaluate how we run our supply chains. Though his company has acquired 40+ companies in the last quarter decade, Birla intends to build up local hubs rather than expand operations.
Why Pursue Regionalisation?
Combine Chinese economic dominance, global supply chain vulnerabilities, and major government policy shifts around the world, and you have a storm brewing on the horizon for big multinational firms. As Brookings noted, ‘the biggest risk for trading opportunities in the developing world is growing protectionism in more advanced economies, often dressed up as national security protection’.
Altogether, from the U.S. to the European Union, governments are trying to protect their domestic supply chains, secure adequate stockpiles of materials, and build world-class local networks. Consider Biden’s recent executive order, which seeks to bring semiconductor manufacturing back to home soil, or Japan’s bid to open more memory chip fabrication factories near Tokyo. The Aditya Birla Group intends to react in kind. Said Birla: ‘We’re looking at regionalism as a very big theme’.
Will Others Follow Suit?
In the post-pandemic economy, global businesses must decide whether to expand or contract. On one hand, the Alibaba Group’s Cainiao Smart Logistics Network recently launched a direct flight between Hong Kong, China, and Lagos, Nigeria. On the other, the Japanese government is desperate to make its chip manufacturing domestic. Indeed, as two supply chain strategies diverge in a post-pandemic world, the one businesses take may make all the difference.
Yet Birla is confident that regionalisation is the right call. According to his words at the Qatar Economic Forum, even necessary cross-border transactions should be smaller in scope. And as the Bloomberg Billionaires Index now lists his net wealth at US$10.4bn, up 52% from 2020, he may have the cash to test his theories out. ‘Regional hubs, regional presence, regional employment, catering to regional demand’, he stated. ‘We’re a global company rooted in local economics’.